Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Red Dead Redemption's Excellent Sound Design

By Kirk Hamilton

Even when held up alongside the spectacular releases of the past eight months, Red Dead Redemption displays a rare level of technical artistry. The graphics, animations and physics engine are incredibly well-done, and the audio is truly in a class by itself. Not only is the game's sound design well-executed, detailed and immersive, it's quite clever and is often creatively woven into the gameplay itself.

I should disclose that I'm biased towards the game's audio design - my friend Rob Katz, a great musician with whom I went to music school, was an audio programmer on the game. But my bias notwithstanding, I believe that he and fellow programmer Corey Shay, along with audio designers Steven Von Kampen, Christian Kjeldseon, Corey Ross and lead audio designer Jeffery Whitcher have done such an outstanding job that their work stands on its own. I wanted to highlight a few things that struck me as particularly noteworthy.

1) Authenticity

In order to get players fully immersed in the setting, each sound in the gameworld needs to feel true, to sound authentic. Without question, the RDR audio team absolutely nailed it - I don't know whose gig it was to go and record a bunch of armadillos running in the wild, but whoever it was did his job right. Little details like that abound - the way the crickets keep chirping for a bit after the sun has risen, the metallic clinks as two pans hanging off the side of a horse-drawn carriage knock together, the thrumming of the rain on the roof of a wooden building - they're all very well-done and lend the gameworld a consistent believability.

2) Space and Positioning

Good sound design really helps a game like this create a "sense of place", but in order to do that, first it's gotta create a convincing sense of space. The soundscapes in Red Dead Redemption do just that - the layering and spatial positioning of the effects are really impressive. To truly get a sense of it, put on some headphones on the open range and just sit and listen. After a little while it almost starts to feel like a minimalist musical composition - some birds over here, a fly buzzing here, the wind sneaking in juuuust over there.

It's some of the best ambient audio I've heard since Far Cry 2, and it's useful, too. When riding the range, audio cues point towards sidequests and instances, so it's very important that they be placed properly.  I'll be riding in a straight line and will hear faint gunfire off to my right. If I want to get involved, I intuitively follow my ears to the source of the shots just like I would in real life. The other night I found myself chasing a wild horse across the plains. He didn't come up on my minimap, so the only way to track him was to listen for the sound of his hoofs. The chase spanned half the length of the map but thanks to the pinpoint placing of his hoofbeats, I never lost him.  

Red Dead Redemption also features some impressive sound-warping that accurately mimics the way human ears work. In the game, things sound noticeably different depending on where they are in relation to John's head - check out how the bell at the Armadillo train station changes pitch if you turn and walk away from it. Very cool.

3) Dead-Eye Audio

When in dead-eye mode, Marston is able to slow down time for a bit and manually tag his enemies for a flurry of perfectly-placed bullets. It's a cool mechanic, but the meter that tracks how much dead-eye time remains is a small red bar on the lower-left corner of the screen; it's all but impossible to check in the heat of the moment. That's where the sound design comes in.

When John enters dead-eye, the screen goes sepia and a single rushing tone begins to play.  As the meter begins to deplete, that tone gradually rises in pitch, growing higher and more insistent as the timer runs out. I relied on it utterly and intuitively from the very first time I heard it - it wasn't until several hours in that I really even noticed it was there. And in addition to being useful, the rushing tone is really dramatic and tense - when the audio comes crashing back to full speed and John unleashes an explosive fusillade of lead, it is never not exhilarating.

4) The Ambient Score

I mentioned above how the soundscape of the open prairie feels akin to a minimalist musical composition. Perhaps that's because at times, it actually is one. As John rides around the range, musical cues sneak in and out of the game like tiny bursts of color, humble homemade fireworks against a bleak, open sky. A guitar strum here, a trumpet shake there, fading in harmony with the sounds of the prairie... it hugely adds to the game's atmosphere and personality.

The cues themselves are universally strong as well. Sure, the harmon-muted trumpet in Mexico is a little bit more Miles Davis than Mariachi, but out-of-place cues like that are the exception. I particularly like the electric bass stuff and the groovy whistling.

In fact, for me the music is the single biggest difference between Red Dead Redemption and a Grand Theft Auto game. Great licensed soundtracks have always been one of the defining characteristics of the GTA series - my memories of each game usually consist of a handful of in-car moments, driving into the sunset as one of my favorite tunes blasts over the radio. Red Dead Redemption, however, doesn't have the luxury of a licensed soundtrack. Instead the game must rely instead on Bill Elm and Woody Jackson's original score to set the mood - and set the mood it does.

Every guitar strum and fiddle double-stop summons welcome spirits of Firefly and Deadwood; whistled intervals evoke the famous themes of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and The Wild Bunch. It really helps give the game a personality that feels distinct from GTA, much like Shawn Lee's excellent soundtrack did for Rockstar's last non-GTA game Bully. Bonus points for having Max Fisher record all the drum parts. (I'm serious - check the credits.)

Perhaps coolest of all is how at times, the music in Red Dead Redemption is so organically integrated into the natural soundscape that the two become one. A horse whinnies and trumpets sound; the shaking tail of a rattlesnake becomes a deadly maraca swell.

There are so many more examples of outstanding audio work that I haven't listed here; it feels like I'm noticing a new one every hour or so. To momentarily relax my stringent anti-"we" policy, I worry sometimes that we take this stuff for granted, particularly with critically acclaimed new titles. We can be so quick to look for things to criticize that we ignore the incredible amount of craft and hard work that a game like this represents.

And we really shouldn't; even while making note of the odd horse malfunction or weird bit of dialogue, we should also be taking the time to just sit and be in the world, to appreciate the fact that every bit of it - from the buzzing flies on a nearby animal carcass to the raindrops making puddles in the mud - was created by a fairly small group of people. Well done, guys.


Jay said...

Wow, I think you just convinced me to get a pair of surround-sound headphones. Totally nailed it with the animals' audio cues. I remember playing a challenge where you had to shoot a certain number of coyotes, but I kept mistaking packs of growling wolves for coyotes... until I listened. The coyotes make a realistically less aggressive barking sound and have a VERY unique howl. After that the challenge was infinitely less frustrating. The sound design really is as practical as it is beautiful.

One thing about the Dead-Eye audio- It was the first aspect of the game that specifically reminded me of its predecessor. The first time I clicked that R stick down and heard the vacuum rush of the dead-eye I instantly remembered why I liked the gameplay of the original so much. I'm pretty sure that's one of the things they adopted almost completely from Revolver. Well, that and the duel missions, but they BOTH rely so heavily on well-crafted audio cues that they're instantly recognizable.

Kirk Hamilton said...

I never had a chance to play the original, but I'm interested in the ways that they're similar (and different). It was open-world, right?

Jay said...

Oh man, I can't believe it's been 6 YEARS since I played that game but from what I remember it's completely different. Red Dead Revolver was a straight-up action game. It was not open world. You moved through the game in stages which often culminated in a duel with a stage boss (or 2 or 3). These stages could then be replayed to unlock rewards if you hit a certain combo, finish within a time limit or maintain specific accuracy or damage-taken percentages.

The stories also have NOTHING to do with each other. Revolver was about a boy named "Red" whose parents, a cowboy and a native, were murdered. The game was spent exacting your revenge. You also played as different characters depending on the stage. From an Annie Oakley-type (not unlike Bonnie), a native and the quick-drawing Jack Swift (who was my favorite for wielding dual pistols).

The duels in Redemption are almost exactly the same from sound design to camera angles to the pacing of the action, but they occur in different contexts. Again, the dead-eye mechanic is also the same but feels different using it to shoot GTA-style character models. The character models in Revolver were not the typical Rockstar brand.

All-in-all the game was super fun and action-packed. The pacing was way faster, but the story development kinda suffered and it lacked the kind of depth you get from the open-world, side-mission riddled Redemption. It was a relatively short game though. If you like playing the Gang Hideouts and Duels in Redemption, then I'd say it's worth picking up used if you can find a copy.

*sidenote: the open world game you may be thinking of is "Gun", which was totally not as fun imo.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Right, Gun is the open-worlder and Revolver is the Rockstar game - I've never really been able to differentiate between the two.

I remember I kinda liked the name "Red Dead Revolver" when that game came out, it had that spaghetti western vibe that worked. "Red Dead Redemption," on the other hand, is kind of a clusterfuck of a title... since the games have nothing in common and the protagonist's name isn't Red, I wonder why they didn't just call it something else?

Anyhow cool, I've heard enough good about Revolver that I just might check it out - also, am curious about Call of Juarez. All of that is, of course, when I get a spare few hours to play older games, which at the rate things are going will happen in precisely never. :-/

Chris Breault said...

Now I feel like revisiting the game...I never took enough time to really appreciate the ambient stuff, but as you say, it was exceptional.

There are a couple of possible issues with the game's soundtrack that I think haven't come up much. The ambient noises are great, some of the cues are great, and at times it's very atmospheric. But occasionally the danger music seemed to start up, weirdly, when there was nothing threatening around. Maybe this can be chalked up to the difficulty of creating open-world environments; it certainly isn't as bizarre as the invisibility glitches or the Cougar Man video. It may have been caused by a cougar stuck running into a rock a quarter-mile away, or a gunman spawning on top of a roof, or some other mysterious event I didn't see.

The spoken-word tracks are a bigger issue for me (I think there are 3 or 4, one of those over the credits). These are jarringly intrusive and, in my opinion, frankly bad. I felt it didn't suit the game's general approach to audio to have these embarrassing songs jump in at pivotal moments, in place of the moody instrumentation the game usually employed. The lyrics (in "Compass" particularly) were too on-the-nose for my liking.

I don't have the background necessary to speak cleverly about music in games, so I usually shut up about it. But to me, these songs felt very much at odds with the ambient soundtrack you describe so nicely here, which relies on the power of suggestion. (By definition, ambience, right?)

SPOILERS IN FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH: Then they mix in blunt songs with lyrics that are mostly just commentary on what you are doing at the time...which just doesn't fit. (Design meeting: "What if while you follow an arrow on the minimap to the spot where you meet up with your wife, you listen to a song about how the only compass you need leads back to her?") I feel like the most vocal supporters of the game's soundtrack don't usually mention these songs, because they don't fit with the general sound design.

It was a daring choice to include these -- they call a lot of attention to themselves -- but for me it didn't work. If they had had a really showy composition, like the theme to Morrowind or Civ IV, or a song from one of the Morricone soundtracks the RDR composers sometimes imitated, I think they could have pulled it off. (Not that those specific songs would be thematically appropriate to sub in, but songs that stand up well on their own, is what I'm saying.)It would be narrow-minded to demand a solid theme if the soundtrack was all minimal, but in these moments it really isn't. The songs they used made some key points in the story fall flat.

So, sorry, maybe everyone else loved these songs. But, oddly, I haven't seen much discussion of them, either pro or con. I know that they aren't the focus of your (very neat) post, but I was wondering about your opinion on them.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Hi Chris - glad you liked the post, and thanks for the thoughtful comment. I haven't noticed the misbehaving danger music, but the game does has its share of bugs and tics, so hearing about them doesn't surprise me.

I left out discussion of the licensed songs in the post because it felt like those moments were enough of a surprise that I wanted to leave folks unspoiled; they're certainly interesting enough to merit discussion.

I guess I came down mixed on the whole idea but generally dug it. That José Gonzalez song "Far Away" that plays when John enters Mexico was a hell of a moment; as you say, a daring choice, and it worked for me despite the slightly on-the-nose lyrics.

It was craftily implemented, too - there's a guitar ostinato that repeats on a loop as John nears possible destinations, and the second verse only kicks in if you opt for a longer ride to John's camp.

The end result is that the song winds to a close just as John gets off his horse no matter where that ends up happening. It's not easy to nail the cinematic timing on something like that in an open-world game and I thought it was pretty slick how they pulled it off. It's likely that the need to allow for looping was one of the reasons they chose a song with such simple instrumentation, but I thought that the starkness of the song fit the lonely vibe of the sequence, too.

However, I didn't find it to be nearly as effective the second time it happened. Mainly because I'd already seen the trick once, plus as you point out the lyrics that second time were a little too literal. Plus, the final journey was like a two minute horse ride down the hills into John's ranch, so it didn't feel particularly epic.

But all things considered, I thought that the licensed songs were a nice surprise, though more as a couple of interesting isolated moments than as a significant part of the game's audio design.

Chris Breault said...

Thanks for the reply; sorry to spoil the inclusion of that music, if anyone read my comment. That may well be the reason most reviewers avoided talking about it, as it is quite a surprise.

I was wrong to lump all the licensed tracks together, and I agree that "Far Away" is the most effective. (I wasn't familiar with any of the songs before playing the game, which I imagine is what Rockstar expected?) The careful timing that you point out is a fascinating detail; I don't remember noticing that part of the song was looping.

Compass seemed like a misstep to me because there was so much dread and expectation mixed in that trip -- I thought that the game was poised to end, in some tragedy or incredible disappointment, when I reached that waypoint. (As Bissell wrote, Rockstar tends to foreshadow with "nuclear subtlety," so you knew a happy ending wasn't in the cards -- but RDR's endgame is nevertheless surprising and wonderful.) And the song they picked didn't embody that apprehension, not as well as just ambient noise would have, or some wordless tune. It felt like they were narrating too much.

The third song I was thinking of is "Deadman's Gun," but it probably isn't worth splitting hairs over a song that plays over the credits.

Yeah, "isolated" is the right word for these songs; they must play for like 10 minutes of a 20-hour game. And as you mention, they do have a spare and haunting sound, so maybe they aren't as jarring as I made them out to be. They seemed very carefully placed in the narrative, but those passages may only seem so significant to me because there was music playing.

Louis F. said...

I did close my eyes a couple of times over my last sessions just to soak in the sounds, and it confirmed just how big a part it played in my enjoyment of the experience, even with a completely normal sound setup. I played most of the game walking or riding at middle speed, totally engorged in the sense of BEING as you said, and the only problem I had with the guns in the field is that they would just never stop firing until you found the source or moved away, but that is a minor issue that isn't related to sound design proper. I used to think the electric bass was a bit out of place in the beginning (there was none of THAT in Morricone), but eventually I just accepted it as part of the game's sonic identity, and started to groove to it. The fiddle parts, however, were instantly striking in their slight melancholy, and I should remember them for long. I'm glad you took the time to elaborate on such subtle work that could easily be forgotten amidst the discussions on lighting and animation (as fantastic as they are).