Emotion Engine - Part 1
Hi, and welcome to this week’s Röki blog.
I’ve been excited to write this post for a while. Today we’re talking about one of the ways we convey emotion in the game. It’s something we’ve been playing around and experimenting with for a while and we’ve arrived at an approach we think is pretty neat.
‘What on earth is he talking about?’ I hear you ask, well, I’m talking about voices.
Worth noting before we go any further that what follows is very much our own thinking and process on this matter. Other approaches are of course available. This post explores what was right for us, it may not be right for every game or team who have different goals (or skills). There is no cast-iron 'right' or 'wrong' approach in many aspects of game development, but there will often be a right approach for a specific project, made by a specific team.
It’s true that the pen is mightier than the sword, but words can be often taken in any number of ways. Words are open to interpretation and one person may read a sentence differently and take a different meaning, tone or emotion from it entirely.
Now, one of our key pillars for the Röki was to make a modern adventure game with a strong emotional core. Sure, it’s a game about exploring the ancient wilderness and meeting monsters, but it’s also the story of a fractured family being reunited. We knew that the words were going to be important, but also that there were not going to be enough on their own to get where we wanted.
Tools for Emotion
We knew that to convey emotion in the game, without relying on the player’s internal performance (them acting it inside their head as they read), we were going to need to leverage every tool at our disposal. One of these tools is music (and non-linear music at that, you can read more here) and the other is giving our characters a voice.
However, we had been warned (strongly) against fully-voicing our game (fully-voiced meaning that each dialogue line is acted/read in full and accompanies the subtitle text on screen). Warnings aside, we were also unsure of a fully voiced approach for a few other reasons:-
Tom and I don’t have much experience in that area and we knew it would have to be 'spot on' or it could very easily ruin the game (have you ever played a game where the VO is super over the top?)
It’s a time/money sink.
People (and I include myself here) often skip dialogue (and thus the fully-voiced line) as they are eager to progress the game-play. Therefore the performance may be interrupted, choppy and actually be a hindrance to player in their progress.
But, we knew we wanted to use voices to lend emotion to our game. However as you can see, on the flip-side we were very wary of going down the fully-voiced route.
Jumping Off Point
When Ali (sound designer extraordinaire) joined the team we looked at the big ticket items we wanted to solve on the audio side. The biggest risk was the use of voice over (or potential lack thereof).
Ali went away and did some tests and came back with a number of options. These were all quite different. For example, one used a signature musical instrument to highlight when a certain character was talking (a piano note for Tove, a guitar for Henrik). We all quite liked this approach, it sounded cool, but didn’t give a massive amount of emotion.
In another test, when the subtitle line was closed by the player it was punctuated with the sound of the character exhaling.
Even though we weren’t getting a lot of emotion from this we all got quite (very) excited hearing our characters for the first time, they were suddenly alive and we wanted to push it further. We then had the idea of expanding this vocal sound, from a simple exhale to library of vocal emotes.
This was our jumping off point and the spark for what we would go on to develop.
The Problems to Solve
We’d seen some games take a similar approach. One that springs to mind, and that I was playing at the time, was Octopath Traveler, but Zelda: Breath of the Wild also takes a similar approach. However, in these examples the emotes can be very over the top, highly caricatured and quickly get repetitive and annoying.
We wanted to see what would happen if we took a more natural, subtle and understated direction, pushed the variety of emotions and tackled the issue of repetition.
To be clear, we’re not ruling out fully voicing some sections or key scenes of the game. Just after developing our approach we think we have something quite special that we’re super chuffed with.
So to sum up, the key issues we wanted to solve within this emote library approach were:-
Annoying, over the top and highly caricatured acting
Limited emotional range
Repetition that quickly reveals the characters to be ‘fake‘
Emote Library Concept
We called what we arrived our ‘Emote Library‘ system. This probably requires a bit of explanation:-
The idea was that we’d create a library of emotive character sounds. These sounds wouldn’t be words or statements. They would be the small vocal sounds that do so much to convey emotion. Sounds like grunts, sighs, laughs, sniffs, snorts.
We initially started off with a set of ten emotes but as we experimented we quickly found that a larger set of nuanced emotions could be created. The current base emote library (there are more outside of the base set, but more on that next week!) we have in-game currently sits at thirty. Here’s an example of some of them to give you an idea:-
Scared - Mild
Scared - Strong
You can watch a video of my initial exploration of the library below. Please excuse my amazing (rubbish) acting skills…
Wow, this blog-post has turned into a bit of a beast, seems I have a lot to talk about on this matter!
Tune in next week for 'Part 2' and we’ll continue to talk about the development of the Emote Library system and where we took it from there.
Alex & Tom