One of the most recognizable aspects of any video game is how it sounds. It’s only part of the fun hearing all the recognizable sound effects that make games that much better. The simple joys that come from hearing Mario’s iconic jump to a hitmarker in FPS games. Not only do these sounds stick out in the player’s mind, but so does everything beyond what the player interacts with. It’s a key part of video game subtlety that is all about attention to detail. Sound design adds a much more detailed essence to gaming, and with a title like Hopoo Games’ Risk of Rain 2, that unique variance in the ensuing chaos is important to discern. That is achieved thanks to the dedicated sound engineers behind Risk of Rain 2, SkewSound.
The team is dedicated to creating original and spatial sounds that instill that sonic palette that coats the titles enemies, items, and of course player attacks. All of what goes into creating a full auditory experience is done by key individuals who get contracted for both indie and studio titles. With many soundtrack and sound design credits for titles like Grim Dawn, Signs of Sojourner, and of course Risk of Rain 2, the team has cultivated a very impressive list of works where their sound can be heard. I had the chance to chat with one of the lead sound designers for Risk of Rain 2, Nick Kallman. Outlining their history and talking me through some of their design philosophy, I could get a good look at how SkewSound adds the thunderous roar to electrifying experiences.
Founded in 2014, the 4 person team has crafted a unique identity, all of whom previously worked for Guitar Hero developer, Harmonix. Even after leaving the company and parting ways, the team kept in touch and since founded the very audio studio they wished to build in 2014. Working remotely in different areas across the states, the team has managed the socially distant world just fine. Speaking to the beneficiaries of the distance, Nick commented on the following:
Thankfully most of us were gearheads back in the day so we’ve been collecting tools and building our own studios. It’s just cheaper, we don’t have to pay for a studio space and we can live where we want too.”
Despite the convenience, distance comes with its determinants. “I can’t just turn my chair and ask Dan what he thinks of a sound” Nick mentioned as a point of grievance. Operating remotely with Hopoo Games he mentioned the numerous spreadsheets and Discord chat rooms used to communicate frequently. Walking me through what goes into starting a new project, Nick detailed the key moments in pre-production at SkewSound. One as unique as Risk of Rain 2, he discussed the work to be done before any production. “We ask for and digest the lore and concept designs of everything in their game to give us as good of a view as we can of the world. At this point, games are in very early grey box stages”. Working to figure out the style and themes of the title is important for designing a full palette for the game.
One of the most important aspects of good sound design is what it translates to the player. For Risk of Rain 2, the sequel’s jump to 3D presented its own challenges for audio itself as well. Nick described these hurdles of transitioning by detailing how “The concern was the fidelity of the mix when reaching the endgame; visuals can only convey so much to the player.” A chaotic title needs to constantly pick out key sounds players should be aware of. For example, when nothing is going on, the only sounds that can be heard are the music, environment, and the player’s footsteps. Yet, that changes as more enemies spawn and players start to fire and use abilities. “Utilizing Wwise to massage the mix between all the sound effects makes the job much easier to manage by solving the priority issue”. Whether or not the players are aware of it, the audio engine is keeping them alive in many instances as they bounce and move their way through the map. Knowing when to dodge, jump, or kill something from the sound design makes it that much more useful to players.
I was also interested to hear about how the team approached various enemies in the title. Seeing how some have been in the game since the earliest days of development, I asked Nick if he had anything to share about early enemy design. Possibly the most recognizable and annoying figure in the game is the lesser wisp. Nick explained how the wisps sound came to be describing how he “Took a drum cymbal and wrenched down on it running a viola bow to capture the sound.” Creating interesting ethereal noises and filling the world of Risk of Rain 2 with them is part of the fun for SkewSound. I was curious as to the design of some items, most notably the Tougher Times teddy bear that sometimes protects players from damage. Nick recounted joyfully by stating how he simply picked up his dog’s chew toy and decided its noise fit the cuddly theme of protecting the player.
Nick added with the work done to pair the music with the sound effects. Not only is this important for all sounds to be properly leveled and adjusted, but even the subtle pairings between the environmental sounds and Chris Christodolou’s soundtrack must fit elegantly. Nick discussed his mixing alongside Christodolou’s score, “We purposefully didn’t add reverb to our sounds not to drown out the music’s echoed space. Everything feels close and powerful, but it doesn’t muddy the audio for the player.” Delivering key information to players at a moment’s notice is indistinguishably key in Risk of Rain 2. When decision making matters most in late-game runs, it’s important to be able to distinguish an incoming attack from the hostile environment.
Often overlooked and underappreciated, sound in gaming is becoming more important than ever. With more content updates and possible paid DLC to be added to Risk of Rain 2, the team at SkewSound is well equipped to add the volume to any undertaking. It’s key touches like these that create a satisfying chaotic experience thanks in part to SkewSound’s brilliant attention to detail work. Risk of Rain 2 is available on all platforms now with next-gen versions coming at a later date.