Within the framework of the “developer diaries” format, we publish the fifth note of the ComonGames team. In the new material, The Unknown’s sound engineer Igor “Neither I am” Fomichev tells how he worked on the music for the project, SFX and the voices of the characters. And he also shares how and where to find inspiration.
I don’t remember a time when my life wasn’t connected with music. It all started more than 25 years ago, when I, like many others, was sent to a music school. Probably, this is what a fulfilled dream looks like: you realize the path of 25 years – from the first note on the piano to your name in the opening cut scene of the game.
I was invited to participate in the development of The Unknown in the fall of 2014. Then there was already a pre-alpha version of some levels, a developed concept and a general idea that seemed incredibly close in spirit to me. I immediately noticed the rain outside the window of the house. It seemed to me extremely symbolic for the story of the self-destruction of mankind. Subsequently, it was this image that I had when I thought about the philosophy and spirit of The Unknown.
The company’s executives were familiar with my music even before the start of the project, so I was given maximum freedom of expression. So a strange hobby – writing sad music – turned into a profession.
For the convenience of presentation, as well as in order to convey the specifics and atmosphere of work in game development as accurately as possible, I will divide the development into three stages:
- meditative philosophy. It is characterized by thoughtful reflections and an unlimited time resource;
- philosophical awareness. There is no exact release date yet, but you are already beginning to feel the finality of the process and expect the first appearance of the deadline;
- conscious concentration. All you do over your morning coffee is try to drive away the flock of thoughts circling over you like crows that it is simply impossible to make it to the deadline.
1. Meditative philosophy
Probably the most important time in the process of creating a game. The moment of immersion in her ideas and the formation of a concept and style in her head, which will need to be sustained until the completion of the work. After getting acquainted with our immediate supervisor and project manager Artem Netyagin, we decided to just “start doing” and see what happens. It was the only right decision. There was a space for discussion, and I got the necessary flexibility in choosing the planes of creativity.
Often I just had the name of the level, say, “Hospital” or “Abandoned Bar”. I started to work, guided solely by the images that arise in my head, my own idea of these places. And it worked! Miraculously, most of the tracks fit perfectly on the emerging locations, suited the atmosphere.
One of the first tracks I wrote was “I’ve Seen”, which became the music for our first trailer.
That day, it suddenly occurred to me that there would definitely be credits in the game, which means my name was there. It looked a little surreal, the brain desperately refused to believe. However, it served as a powerful emotional impetus and a source of inspiration. After 4 hours of work, I wrote a track that I proudly sent to Artem. Always busy and reserved Artem, surprisingly, said: “Very cool! Don’t do anything with it yet, we’ll figure out how to use it closer to the point!” This pleased me, and with a sense of accomplishment I started on other compositions.
A few months later, Artyom and I returned to this track again, as it was necessary to choose the music of the trailer for the E3 exhibition – our guys flew to it from day to day. By this point, I had completely forgotten what I had written in that composition, and I would not be able to remember the music, even if my life depended on it! With a paranoid tremor in my hands, I put the music on the trailer sent to me and pressed play. Surprisingly, the music went perfectly, and after a little discussion about the possibility of preserving the vocal pad in it, which, according to one opinion, did not quite fit with extinct humanity, we still came to the decision not to change the atmosphere for the sake of realism.
In total, 4 hours of production and 3 months of exposure were spent on the track. And it worked! Our trailer has received good reviews, and I am the first proof that I am more or less coping with my duties.
In the process, not all tracks remained in their places. So, the music that was originally recorded for an abandoned bar (I specially made it slightly dirty and slightly fake to emphasize the emptiness of the room, where no one hears your game and there is no point in trying), moved to the main menu of the game, and the music for the laboratory – to the fallen ship. They looked much more organic there.
The forerunner of the second stage of development was the same E3 exhibition. Two weeks before it started, I was hinted that, although the robot does not have a mouth, it must talk anyway. This means that my choice has tragically been reduced to two options: either I find an English-speaking actor and do voice acting with him, or I record the text myself with my far from Oxford English, which will certainly create an image of a robot a la Soviet general from American films of the 80s.
The first option was chosen, and I prayed in social networks: “An actor is needed”, “Very urgently!”, “Very necessary!”, “The reputation of Russian game development is under threat”, and finally just “Save me, I beg!” My friend Maria, who works at one of the foreign language schools, responded. A couple of days later I had a suspicious demo recorded on my phone in the middle of some noisy stairs. I proudly presented him to the management, assuring along the way that we could not find a better voice in this part of the world, and in general it is surprising that Luke (and that was the name of our Canadian savior) does not work in Hollywood.
A day later, having cut off the expat’s phone with pleas, I waited for him at 5 in the morning in front of the house to take him to the studio. Due to the fact that there was little time, we decided to go all-in. We didn’t have a clear understanding of how an actor should speak and how the processing will fall on the voice, so in 5 hours we managed to register it in two images: “ordinary” and “robotic”.
Along the way, we registered him with the voice of all the minor characters, surely unlocking the “endless roles” achievement in Luke’s head. Puzzled by such pressure, the Canadian wished us good luck and expressed a desire to continue working on the project, after which we said goodbye, and I flew home to process the material.
After testing several processing options, we decided that it is more natural and correct to use ordinary human speech: the player will simply get tired of the endless robotic voice by the end of the game. The technical implementation of the idea took 5 days, and by the beginning of the exhibition we had a fully voiced demo version.
And for me, the second stage of development has begun.
2. Philosophical awareness
The most important and difficult thing at this stage was the need for a critical look at the fruits of our labor.
We received the first feedback, had the completed part of the game on our hands – it was time for a detailed analysis and adjustments. It became obvious that the concept we chose works: the music fits the atmosphere, and the voice fits well into the image of the robot. At the same time, we concluded that processing should definitely be facilitated, first of all, moving away from analogies with Glados.
During the development, the first cut scenes began to appear, which were marked by the hottest discussions about music and SFX. For example, it took us more than a month to voice the fall of the ship. Five versions of the music were written and probably a dozen discussions were held on how the sound component should look like.
All the music had to be put into one concept. We decided not to abuse the electronic component, so that the images would not become too artificial and analogies with people’s lives would remain. So in the soundtrack of the game, a lot of guitar parts and maximally smoothed synthesizers appeared, which created a slightly sentimental atmosphere.
At the same time, the ambient of the locations, which does not relate to the images of the heroes and does not describe specific situations, was made with an emphasis on melancholic, but still cold synthetic motifs. This could be evidence that artificial intelligence abstracts from emotions when making decisions.
The symbol of the fact that the next stage of work is coming to an end has again become the need to record the voices of the actors – now with a huge array of text of the entire game in two languages.
3. Conscious concentration
At this stage, the main problem was extremely tight deadlines, and despite the fact that the main array of music was already ready, there was still a lot of work to be done.
The news immediately arrived that our Canadian was outside of Russia. This meant only one thing to us: we would have to start all over again.
The primary task again was the selection of actors. After a week of searching and several trials, when the paranoid fear that we will not be able to find what we need and will be content with what we have, I received a message on the phone. A man named Brent Larry Rowley provided his demo and expressed the hope that it might suit us.
The demo was recorded on the phone – but even so I realized that it was perfect! Probably, this was the first time in the entire history of development when the decision to choose an actor was made simultaneously and unanimously.
There was an inordinate amount of material, and we immediately got to work.
We wanted to reduce the processing and create only shades of artificiality in the voice, so we needed to think through a pitch that would leave a feeling that it was the robot that was speaking. The choice was made in favor of an emotionless image. After all, the fact that people were able to make a perfect voice module does not mean that they would have been able to teach the robot emotions.
Due to the peculiarities of their purpose, we recorded other characters of the game not so cold. The processing showed that the contrast between the voice of the main character and the sound of the other characters only emphasizes the atmosphere, in harmony with the general mood of the game.
Russian Russian version we transferred the same thing with the student of GITIS Artem Dudarev: we managed to create a similar message even taking into account the stricter specifics of the Russian language.
Then there was an endless process of technical implementation of the conceived strategy.
The time when you go to bed and wake up with a million thoughts about what has already been recorded, what needs to be completed, what needs to be corrected and rewritten. When you don’t remember what day it is, but you know for sure that you have to go to the studio, since the studio is rented for every day of this month. I don’t think that the spouses of the actors who recorded the voices of the main characters for us will hear their voices during the whole life together with their husbands during the time I listened to them for these 4 months.
The phrase “This is a strange door” became a byword at that time. I don’t go there,” which, due to a bug at the development stage, our robot said at the sight of a guitar. A phrase that has become a symbol of the head going round from the number of cases. We applied it to all objects that came into view. We recorded the voice day and night, the Brand missed the plane after the night recording and could not see the sights of Kaliningrad. Artyom moved the flight to rest for a week so that we could record everything.
Most of the minor characters in the Russian and English versions were recorded with the help of freelancers on one of the specialized sites. And even in this we were infinitely lucky. People sent and rewrote new versions of texts to us as soon as possible, one of the American actresses recorded additional material for us while attending the funeral.
It was an amazing time of maximum concentration, unity and mutual assistance; stories, destinies, personalities of people became part of our game.
We are eternally grateful to everyone who treated all aspects of the work with the greatest professionalism! This allowed us to get the highest quality result and proudly present our game to you. For most of us, this was the first project, and we were able to get the most important thing – experience.
The experience that we will be able to transfer to the following parts and create a project based on your wishes and our accumulated knowledge.