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Sound design for "Asylum Jam" recap

André Engelhardt

While working as a conference associate at GDC Europe this August, I learned about the existence of game jams (yeah, I'm getting old, whatever). In case you didn't know yet either, a game jam is a get-together of game developers who then under extreme time constraint create a game from scratch, usually with a common theme. For Asylum Jam the theme was to create a horror game that does not rely on stereotypical and therefore often completely wrong types of mental or other clinical type illnesses. 

I have previously participated in several 48 hour film projects which follow the same idea except that you create a short film of around 5 minutes duration from scratch within 48 hours.

If you don't have a pre-assembled team and sign up for a "random group" you get the opportunity to work with people you've never met before, from different countries, different backgrounds, hobbyists, seasoned pros, students, and so on. That's what makes this an incredible learning opportunity on so many levels (teamwork, workflow, logistics, organization ...) and if you've never participated in one, go do it, do it now! 

After emailing about ten people from the "Looking For Group" spreadsheet on the day before the launch of the jam and getting replies almost instantly, I signed up with three teams to do the SFX and music for. 

As an extra challenge to myself I decided to avoid using 3rd party sound libraries unless absolutely necessary and I'm happy to say that apart for a few sounds I was able to either create all required sounds from scratch or by using recordings from my own personal library.

The first game was going to be a retro style RPG and for this I created nearly 200 original sound effects and gibberish voice overs with the help of my very supporting wife (seriously, she was happy to do a recording session of boxes being torn at 3 am or  talking gibberish for an hour in a dark closet because I don't have a vocal booth at home). Sadly this game never or rather so far hasn't seen the light of day but I I might offer the sound-set for free download on here at some time in the future 

The second game, "Telegram" is a first person exploration game where you have to deliver a telegram to an officer in a bunker during the first world war. As you enter the bunker you realize that everyone is dead or missing and that you are being hunted by a foreign intelligence officer who you only ever "hear" but never see. The game was quite simple SFX-wise, only requiring a few gun shots, war ambience (bombs dropping and exploding, planes flying past, shouts etc.) and other relatively simple sounds so I was able to do that pretty quickly.

The third game I helped with is called "Crushing Nightmare" and the team, spread out all over the world, was a blast to work with. In Crushing Nightmare you find yourself on a conveyor belt that relentlessly carries you towards a giant stamping machine. Obviously getting underneath that machine is a bad idea so you try (or are supposed to) go the opposite way while trying to dodge the books that form a maze for you to get past. 

The machine was a lot of fun to create sounds for, it had to sound menacing, old school mechanical and somewhat organic so I decided to use layers of doors, latches, hinges and other non electronic objects (there's even the sound of a whip and breathing in there) to create a complex sound that matches the movement of the stamp going up and then coming down.  Obviously time was extremely limited and the free version of Unity 3D has limited audio implementation capabilities so I created several version of the machine as it would be heard from different distances (e.g. duller and more indirect sound from further away and brighter and more detailed sound as you get closer) but that made things a bit hard for our lone programmer. So in order to demonstrate how the sound was supposed to be I created a gameplay video with mock-up sound which you can check out below. 

The experience from this game jam has led me to not only focus / rely on the really powerful software suites like FMOD and WWise but also how to think outside the box when dealing with more limited audio engines and make things work with scripting in the same way that the more powerful engines automate things (e.g. distance drop-off curves for filters, loudness etc.). I'm hoping that for the next game jam I'll participate in I can do the implementation myself. It looks like my 4 semesters of computer science will finally pay off after all! 

To sum up, it was an awesome, intense, fun and extremely insightful learning experience and I can't recommend participating in a game jam or other 48 hour project enough.

Big thanks to the organizer Lucy Morris (www / twitter / asylumjam.com) for a great theme and flawless organization, to my teammates for their amazing work and trust and of course to my wife for her support and help. Looking forward to the next one!

By the way, obviously if you're looking for a sound designer for a future game jam ... get in touch with me! And if you have suggestions for really digging in to audio implementation using free Unity 3D, I'd love to hear about it! Cheers!