RIP Ralph Baer – The Almost-Father of Game Audio

RIP Ralph Baer – The Almost-Father of Game Audio

I was saddened to hear that Ralph Baer, creator of the first video game console, passed away yesterday. Baer was already 50 years old when the Magnavox Odyssey was released to the…

RIP Ralph Baer – The Almost-Father of Game Audio
Character Introductions in Destiny and The Swapper

Character Introductions in Destiny and The Swapper

Introducing a character can be a tricky business. This is especially true of those characters present throughout the gameplay experience – player characters, buddies, guides, narrators and their ilk. Game teams exposed…

Character Introductions in Destiny and The Swapper
The Use of Voice in Portal 2

The Use of Voice in Portal 2

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RIP Ralph Baer – The Almost-Father of Game Audio

I was saddened to hear that Ralph Baer, creator of the first video game console, passed away yesterday. Baer was already 50 years old when the Magnavox Odyssey was released to the public in 1972, so I was somewhat surprised in 2009 to find that he was not only alive and kicking but that he had a website through which he made himself available. So, I mailed Ralph to ask him about the role of sound, specifically the lack of it, in this pioneering device and was both amazed and delighted when he actually replied! Here is that e-mail exchange in full.


—– Original Message —–
From: “Kenneth Young”
To: rhbaer@REDACTED
Sent: Wednesday, July 8, 2009 5:59:45 PM GMT -05:00 US/Canada Eastern
Subject: Magnovox Odyssey

Dear Mr. Baer,

I’m giving a talk next week, part of which will include a brief overview of the technological and historical trends of audio in games. Your Brown Box/the Odyssey is obviously an important landmark, not only because it was the first home console, but also because it was silent. I was wondering if you’d be so kind as to fill me in on the specific reasons for the lack of any audio output from the console – was it an unnecessary expense, too technically challenging, simple beeps not considered to be a valuable contribution to the experience of using the console, or was audio output the last thing on your mind given that you were solving bigger, more important challenges?

Any insight you can give me in to the early pioneering days of console development would be much appreciated.

All the best,

Kenneth Young
Audio Designer
Media Molecule Ltd.



Date: Thu, 9 Jul 2009 00:00:33 +0000
From: rhbaer@REDACTED
To: kcmyoung@REDACTED
Subject: Re: Magnovox Odyssey

Hello Kenneth:

For an engineer like me who has been designing and building audio equipment for 60+ years – audio amps, noise reduction devices, audiology hardware, speaker systems, audio test equipment, musical instruments etc – to have ignored the need for sound in our early videogame hardware, is just plain baffling. The fact of the matter is that we just didn’t think of it except in the case of the light gun where we played with sound but dropped it because of cost.

I was an early member of the Audio Engineering Society before WWII and when I came out of the Army in 1946 I built a record player noise reduction circuit to reduce scratch from 78 RPM records at low musical signal levels…probably before Dolbie was out of knee pants.

Everything is obvious in retrospect, I guess. Implementing sound in a ping-pong game is technically easy: You simply use the device (a flip-flop in the case of our hardware) that reverses the direction of the ball in ping-pong upon coincidence with the paddle and tap into that FF’s waveform edge to develop (at a minimum) a transient tat come out of a speaker as a loud click, after it is capacitively coupled from the FF output to a transistor driver which, in turn, feeds the speaker…..but we just didn’t think of it until the Pong arcade game showed up (courtesy of Al Alcorn at Atari).

To whom are you addressing your talk?

Cordially,

Ralph



From: kcmyoung@REDACTED
To: rhbaer@REDACTED
Subject: RE: Magnovox Odyssey
Date: Thu, 9 Jul 2009 10:51:59 +0100

Hi Ralph,

That’s wonderful information – thank you so much for sharing it with me.

I’m talking to my industry peers at the Develop Conference in Brighton, England. The focus of the audio track this year is “real-time audio”, and most folk will be talking about many of the new technologies coming online for manipulating and synthesising audio in real-time. The niche of my talk is looking at historical uses of real-time audio manipulation in games, because there are a lot of lessons to be (re)learned. For example, real-time synthesis of music was the norm up until games started using better sounding CD audio and, latterly, digital file formats. Currently, there’s much talk of how inevitable it is that we switch back to real-time synthesis of music once we have enough processing power and tech to be able to synthesise music which can sound as good as a CD. Which is great, because it opens the door to procedural generation of musical score, but we’ve been there before so it’s important to be aware of our heritage to minimise reinventing the wheel and repeating mistakes.

I’d always taken the fact that the Odyssey was silent as just one of those things, but in putting this talk together it bugged me that I didn’t know why. Thanks for satisfying my curiosity – the internet is a wonderful thing!

Cheers,

Kenny


What a legend!

It is kinda perplexing that an experienced audio engineer like Ralph managed to overlook the low hanging fruit offered by the synchronisation of sound and image, but it is a great example of sound not being at the front of people’s minds irrespective of its power and the potential contribution it can make to the player experience.

Near the end of my aforementioned talk, I looked out and caught sight of this ancient, bald man sitting in the audience in a dark navy blazer (not a common occurrence at a game audio lecture!) – I didn’t get an opportunity to confirm if it was him. To be honest, I didn’t really want to know, because that would have weirded me out.

Watching that video, I can’t help but reflect on this experience and think that it really was Ralph. I feel bad for not interacting with him more, but I’m grateful I got the opportunity to do so.

Rest in peace, Ralph.

Character Introductions in Destiny and The Swapper

Introducing a character can be a tricky business. This is especially true of those characters present throughout the gameplay experience – player characters, buddies, guides, narrators and their ilk. Game teams exposed to such characters over months and years of development become so familiar with them that evaluating their introduction, the final implementation of which is often conceived of and added to the game nearer the end of development, can be incredibly difficult. It’s no surprise then that this is a common weak point in the presentation of a game – it’s a blind spot that takes great care to notice and real commitment to address. With voice being so inextricably linked to the portrayal of a character and their identity it often has a central role to play in their introduction, and is therefore a prime candidate for such oversight.

Destiny, Bungie’s lush sounding über-game, has the not-so-enviable task of having to introduce a narrator, enemies, a guide and the player character, all in its opening moments. But, as you’d expect from such a lavish production and distinguished team, much thought and effort has gone in to how to make this work.

Looking past my inability to get over Bill Nighy attempting a straight, earnest delivery [I’d love to have been a fly on the wall in that recording session: “Err, could you tone down the ‘Bill Nighy’ a bit please, Bill?”], what we have here is a fairly bog-standard narrator – an enlightened, disembodied voice, speaking with authority and bringing the player up to speed:

Whilst this character isn’t introduced, this is of course the trump card of the narrator – they are a thoroughly familiar convention which can get by without such formalities. The audience is keen to be brought up to speed and the narrator obliges (or “the dude abides”). But that’s not to say the narrator can just start talking willy-nilly – whilst there is no need to introduce the role of the narrator, the disembodied voice nonetheless needs its introduction to be justified if it isn’t to feel like an uninvited guest. This is fairly straightforward to achieve when the nature of most narrators is to explain. In Destiny, the narrator is introduced by answering the subconscious question on the mind of every player – “WTF is that big round thing they just discovered on Mars WTF?”

The baddies, AI guide and player character are all introduced economically in the short sequence that follows:

This is no mean feat and is nicely done. The same breadcrumb technique of ‘visual intrigue followed by vocal explanation’ that was used to introduce the narrator is used again here to introduce Ghost, the AI buddy character. The baddies, the Fallen, are introduced the other way around – having been explained by the narrator in the previous scene we know who they are when we experience them here for the first time (it obviously helps that the music and their voices identify them as evil). Ghost is also the vehicle used to introduce the player, by answering the question “what is that little robot scanner thing searching for?”. I initially interpreted the exposition that follows as suggesting that I (me, Kenny) had literarily been resurrected in the world of Destiny. I love this concept! Whilst it would be intolerable for every game to attempt to justify the relationship between the player and the game world in this way, I do like it when a game takes a crack at this – it’s kinda hokey, but I’m a willing victim for this kind of 4th wall breaking malarkey.

However, it was only in writing this piece and scrutinising Destiny’s intro sequence more closely that I realised this wasn’t the intention (it doesn’t make any sense within the game’s own backstory/timescales). My confusion here stemmed from the use of first person perspective – it felt like Ghost was talking directly to me. But whilst I was the one he was making eye contact with he was actually talking to my character – it’s not that I had died (in my distant future) and been brought back to life, it’s that my character had previously been killed but was being brought back to life. I didn’t pick up on this because my character effectively hadn’t been introduced yet – as such I hadn’t been given an opportunity to assume their role. Despite this failure, it remains an intriguing setup – attempting to create a scenario which justifies the player’s disorientation and explains their lack of understanding about their character’s role in the game world is a really nice touch.

However, where this failure becomes more significant is that the first person perspective and lack of any spoken response from my character also led me to believe that I was inhabiting a silent protagonist. So, I was taken aback and brought out of the experience at the end of the first mission when my character suddenly appears in the third person and speaks for the first time (and rather pointlessly it must be said):

Whilst it is conventional, if somewhat clunky, for a first person game to have exposition take place from a third person perspective, it is an oversight for Destiny to have failed to set an expectation for this from the get-go and be so inconsistent in its presentation, especially when Bungie have otherwise made such a concerted effort to justify and explain everything.

The player character in Destiny is in many respects the opposite of an acousmêtre – rather than being a disembodied voice which looses all of its power by gaining a body, it is a voiceless body which is robbed of its power by gaining a voice.

Another beautiful sounding game which uses voice in interesting ways when introducing its characters is Facepalm Games’ The Swapper.

The game begins with the player’s astronaut character landing on a lonely planet. There is no real introduction to the character, it relies on the age-old “press buttons to establish a relationship” paradigm. This doesn’t feel awkward – it fits the sense of mystery quite nicely. Indeed, there is nobody there to greet you as you enter what appears to be an abandoned space station. The location is introduced in a rather matter-of-fact fashion by the disembodied voice of the space station’s computer, the lack of formality matching up nicely with their cold, dead, robot personality:

Dat wind! [wub wub] Plowing on through the introductory tutorial sequence, you eventually find a computer terminal which displays a memo log, giving you your first insight into what went on here before your arrival. The computer then plays you a panicked conversation, what you assume are the final moments of the last person to inhabit this place, perhaps the same person whose mail you had just read:

N.B. You’ll need to watch this full screen if you want to read the log!

As you carry on, the computer continues to play you more voice logs, presumably recordings from the locations you are exploring. However, the mystery becomes even more intriguing when you catch sight of another astronaut in the space station:

They look like you, is it a rogue clone? What does it all mean?! Eventually, you catch up with them, and it’s at this point that they speak to you:

It was only then, when I heard her familiar voice, that I realised the voice logs I’d been hearing were actually intended to be live radio broadcasts, that I was meant to be intrigued by the existence of someone else on the space station and feel compelled to track them down.

Does this confusion matter? It’s meant to be a mystery, so isn’t it OK for things to be a little confusing and to become clearer over time? If that is the intention, then absolutely. But I don’t get the impression that this is the intended experience here – this feels like another case of the developer being blinded by the additional context they have in their heads preventing them from seeing that they aren’t communicating it effectively to their audience.

When the space station’s computer introduces the radio broadcast by saying “Radio uplink available – broadcast location: Mine Science Laboratory, Space Station Thesius” the developer thinks they have been crystal clear in calling out that this is contemporary (that’s certainly how it comes across when you know this is the intention). What they didn’t take into account is that by doing so immediately after introducing the game’s concept of ‘computer logs written in the past’, there was a danger that the broadcasts would be framed and heard in this context too. There’s nothing about the computer’s introductory sentence which indicates that the broadcast isn’t from the past – if anything, the inclusion of its precise location and the fact that it is introduced (made “available”) helps to suggest that it is a documented recording. Perhaps if it had unexpectedly just happened it would have felt much more like an “overheard broadcast”. But, even then, the broadcasts are missing any information or context to ground them in the here and now. I suspect the vagueness of the script here is intentional – however, it’s one thing for the player to not understand what is going on, but something else entirely for them to be misled as a result of flawed design.

Despite this bold but problematic use of disembodied voice to introduce the “other” character, The Swapper also contains this incredibly novel and more successful device:

The Watchers, sentient alien monoliths, communicate with the player via text. Normally, this would be in danger of grating in a game which also uses voice, but here that juxtaposition is also what makes it work. Text usually has an implied voice even if there is none to be heard, but here it has none and none is implied. It isn’t text-as-subtitles underscoring an indecipherable alien language – it’s genuinely voiceless and silent text which takes up the entirety of the screen, and your attention, when the player character is stood directly in front of a Watcher. It’s as if the stone is communicating telepathically with you, injecting language directly into your brain. This is of course how all language works – you decipher its coded meaning internally – but it’s incredibly unusual for this magical process to be used in a way which is so overtly aware of this magic. And that’s what gives The Watchers their amazing power. It’s the visual equivalent of a disembodied voice – omnipresent and all consuming.

Not only is this novel, sophisticated, intriguing and succinct, it doesn’t let any of these factors get in the way of its simple primary purpose which is to introduce the character completely and accurately (as per the author’s intent). It’s pure genius.