Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Posted 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.
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.