Naughty Dog’s audio lead, Bruce Swanson, and senior sound designer, Derrick Espino, spearheaded a team making the third instalment of the popular Uncharted series sound as good as its predecessors.
“I’ve worked on each title in some capacity,” reflects Espino. “When I was asked to become senior sound designer on the third game, I figured it was because I understood the aesthetic of the game. I got involved early enough to be looking at initial storyboards.
“Because I come from a post background, my favourite sound designers are guys like Ben Burtt and Randy Thom – guys who get on a project early, mentally and creatively preparing themselves for what’s coming.
"I did that as best I could but I found out it was like standing at the bottom of an avalanche and strategising how much you were going to outrun it.
“The reality is that it will catch you and carry you away, so throughout the process, I just tried to maintain as much of that original vision as I could.
"Bruce and I sat down at the beginning and asked, ‘what do we want this game to sound like? What do we want to keep from the last game? What should we improve on and what doesn’t need improving?’”
MAKING A SPLASH
“Because Uncharted 2 made such a splash, I think a lot of fans would be disappointed if everything was different – so we certainly kept a few legacy sounds,” continues Espino.
“My job was to make sure the scenes were really being sold by audio – but also remained true to the Uncharted universe.
"When we started adding more sound designers, I would get them acclimatised to the view that Bruce and I held of how the game should sound.
“Once we had a sort of template and aesthetic, it was important to reel everybody into that place. The designers would often hear me say, ‘let the sound live’.
"I think in the past in games, because of technical limitations like memory constraints, sounds have sometimes had a very short life in the temporal space they play in – they happen and then they’re gone.
“Because this is like a film – a very cinematic experience – we try and make those sounds really live in the world. If Drake slams a gate, then you’ll hear the very end of that gate rattle away. It’s not just a truncated impact.
"I wanted people to really feel like they’re in that environment and make it as real as possible.
“Friends of mine who have played the game have been blown away, but the point is, they don’t come to me and say, ‘that explosion sounds great’ or ‘that gun sound is cool’, they just say, ‘Uncharted blew me away’ and that’s what we’re trying to do – make the whole experience one cohesive blockbuster.
"I don’t necessarily want to hear, ‘that sounds like a movie punch,’ or something – I just want them to say, ‘wow, the fight in the pub was awesome’.”
“Our focus is on the overall experience rather than individual sounds,” offers Swanson.
“There are some designers whose sounds are going to be really ‘present’. They’re going to try and imbue that sound with as much of their design as they can. Sometimes we love that, and other times we don’t.
“Sounds have a job. They’re only players in a very large cast so there are times we’ll have people add more detail and times we’ll have them remove it because ultimately the experience is supposed to just wash over you and resonate in some way. We don’t want anyone distracted, we want it to be felt.”
Though the team is always interested in new tools and tech, Swanson believes it is creativity and hard work which are the driving forces.
“The truth is it’s really a lot of elbow grease,” he says. “You keep your eyes on the prize. One of the biggest things in our arsenal is the dedication to the game and devotion to the craft.
Espino concludes: “Sure, we’re interested in new tech but you can have all the tools in the world and if there’s no creative heart behind using them, it’s not going to matter.
"I don’t even think technically half the time – I’m always thinking of the emotional reaction I want to get from a scene. Bruce and I both come from post so we’re always asking ‘is this really selling what Drake is supposed to be doing?’ That’s where the magic is.”