A great deal is distinct about the critically lauded action-RPG Transistor. It’s idiosyncratic spin on its genre’s conventions and sharp visual style in particular attracted high-praise.
But Transistor’s crisp, atmospheric audio also enjoyed a wealth of positive attention: a particular achievement in a world where even the best game sound design can be ignored by the mainstream press.
Ultimately, the title’s aural elements succeeded on several levels. They served to cement the style and atmosphere crafted by Supergiant’s design team, responded deftly to the gameplay, and in the case of the PS4 release, established the controller as something rooted firmly in the title’s peculiar universe. And serving as the beating heart of Transistor’s auditory substance was Firelight Technologies’ FMOD Studio, the audio content creation tool inspired in part by established digital audio workstations.
A MATTER OF PRINCIPLES
For the development team, their success with sound was founded on a fairly simple principle of game design.
“A main consideration from our point of view with any game is using audio to deepen the immersion and reinforce the atmosphere and tone of the game as best we can,” explains Darren Korb, audio director at Supergiant Games, who also worked on the studio’s previous title, Bastion.
“We spent a lot of time prototyping the art and audio to make sure that they were ‘of a piece’ this time. That was one of our goals. Bastion, I thought, turned out really nicely, but a goal on this project was to more seamlessly integrate the look and feel of the art with the feel of the audio.”
Spend even a short time with Transistor, and it’s clear Korb and his colleagues succeeded in that regard. Part of their secret, it turns out, was in having team members of every discipline contribute to the sound design. As well as Korb, the game’s programmer Chris Jurney and designer, writer and creative director Greg Kasavin both became involved in the audio effort, with FMOD Studio’s accessible form making it a welcoming tool for those who come from different disciplines.
“I feel great about how the audio turned out in Transistor, and with a team of our size I was also the composer and the sound designer,” states Korb. “FMOD Studio – especially considering how feature rich and powerful it is – it seemed pretty easy to use, and the FMOD guys were pretty responsive if we had a bug report or feature idea.”
Of all of Transistor’s audio achievements, perhaps the most significant is the aforementioned skillfulness with which the game to responds to player action, with music building from the non-percussive through to elaborate, vocally supported tracks in combat. And according to Korb, FMOD Studio did much to make that task easier for the small team at the reigns.
“What was really nice about working with FMOD Studio was being able to implement all of the music as multi-track stems,” he offers. “What that allowed us to do was have really specific control over each stem individually, so we could turn them on and off at will, and give each stem different effects if we wanted to.
“That was actually – once we got going with it – fairly easy to set-up,” Korb continues. “That was really useful to us. We were also able to do a lot of complex mixing stuff that would have been really daunting to try with
a different software.”
Similarly, Supergiant have achieved remarkable things in harnessing the PlayStation 4 controller as a conduit for Transistor’s audio atmosphere, going beyond simply taking advantage of the gamepad’s built-in speaker.
“We were able to take advantage of two main controller features with our audio,” confirms Korb.
“What we did was, on FMOD Studio’s mixer channel – so basically the bus that had the voice over on it – we were able to run that through a volume-metering tool and translate that into a flashing light on the controller. We could make the gamepad’s lightbar flash in sync with the voiceover, as the sword in the game did the same on screen, so the three would work together to help make the player feel they were actually holding the Transistor.
“Then the controller speaker just seemed a pretty obvious thing to at least have as an option for players.”
That’s just scraping the surface of Transistor’s audio achievement, but it does demonstrate what a small team can do with FMOD Studio, even if that team isn’t universally experienced in audio work.
Supergiant’s next creation is presently a matter of speculation, but based on its success with Transistor and Bastion, it is safe to say it will sound fantastic.