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Plaything’s Progress: Part Two

Development of our new videogame Plaything is well under way. Digital Producer Russell Dornan gives us an update on the project and explores how important sound is in bringing the game to life.

There’s one month to go until Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt opens which means Plaything is also only a few weeks away from being released. In our last article we explored what Plaything is and how the project started. Since then, Will and Niall have been working hard to develop the game, getting it closer to play ready.

A key area they’ve focussed on recently is the character creation stage right at the start of the game. In the most recent version I’ve played, the primordial soup of coloured shapes from which you build your creature has been refined. Bulkier shapes form the bodies and thin, colourful sausages represent the limbs. Once you have the required combination of elements, they wobble, blur and warp together and your plaything emerges. The screen cuts to black, showing a spinning white angular clock tick-tick-ticking round before fading back to white with your creature stood waiting for you.

The biggest recent addition to the game is the sound design. The floating, colourful soup is now aurally augmented with a sort of white noise that reminds me of a smooth and uniform mix of rain hitting a corrugated metal roof and very gentle popcorn popping. Will calls it “digital rain” and, while it feels a little rough at first, it’s mesmerising and meditative, framing the contemplative act of selecting coloured shapes beautifully.

Just after your plaything wobbles to life, the sound intensifies into a ‘whoosh’ before cutting to silence and followed by that pleasing monotone of a ticking clock, shown white against black; this great use of visuals and sound creates a simple but powerful contrast, letting players know the first stage is complete and that the next is about to start.

Further deepening the interaction with your creature, sound has been added to the next part of the game. When you first see your plaything, it appears with a gentle pop. Your cursor also makes a sound as you move it around the screen: a gentle non-abrasive scrape, a bit like when you run your finger across a piece of slate. There’s a nuanced change to the sound when you click and drag versus when you simply move it around freely. This, coupled with the playful design of the cursor, a ring of seven small squares that flexes and stretches with a gentle lag as you move it, gives the interactions weight and makes the game feel more tangible than it otherwise would.

Right now, your plaything’s movement is limited to a few key moments, but any sudden moves come with sweet, faintly musical pops and squeaks. There’s no dialogue (and there won’t be), but the animation and the sound already communicate so much. When you click on your creature and gently rub it (not as weird as it sounds), there’s a very faint hum (made by rubbing the rim of a wine glass), after which your creature wobbles and warps, presumably happily.

Will and Niall are collaborating with Kirsty Keatch and Keith Duncan on the sound design for the game. Keith's doing a lot of the raw sound creation, mostly Foley work (from rubber bands to the aforementioned wine glass) or using digital synthesisers, with direction from the designers. “We usually give Keith animated reference clips that he can compose over,” Niall explains. “Once we're happy with a take he's added audio to, Keith splits the sound mix into individual elements.”

Kirsty takes over at this point. She’s been exploring generative sound design and dynamic audio, which is apt since a lot of the game utilises generative art to bring the playthings to life. Artist and lecturer Philip Galanter defined generative art as “any art practice where the artist uses a system, such as a set of natural language rules, a computer program or other procedural invention, which is set into motion with some degree of autonomy contributing to or resulting in a completed work of art.”

For Plaything, Kirsty brings Keith’s work into the interactive setting. “She handles the integration of sound clips into our build,” Niall says, “and works on mapping the sound from Keith's reference track into something that might end up being played very differently by the player.” This includes spatialising audio according to its position in the scene and modulating the sounds so they work well together in terms of volume and pitch ranges.

Recently, Kirsty's been working quite a lot with Niall on interaction design, which is as much about audio as it is game design. Niall tells us more: “All of the interaction with your plaything is basically through gestures. We wanted to find a way to map how you use touch to some notion of intent beyond just 'you clicked here' in a way that feels intuitive.”

For a while, cursor speed was the only measure of this, but it felt too unpredictable. It also didn't account for a range of different styles of touch people might have. Niall’s simple drawing below illustrates how he wanted gestures to be distinguished, plotting out mouse or finger movements; less about cursor speed and more about a sort of level of intensity and jaggedness.

Niall's simple drawing to explain how to distinguish between people's gestures.

From this, Kirsty mocked up a sort of isolated version, trying to graph mouse 'spikiness'. This fed into the sound design, as it's a major part of how players are prompted on possible interactions with their plaything; it’s important that audio feedback matches these notions of gestures.

Sound has added a new layer of meaning to Plaything, even at this early point. As further stages are animated and the intricate and dynamic sound design brings them to life, the spirit of this kind and curious videogame is taking shape and you'll be able to play it very soon.

Russell is a Digital Producer at V&A Dundee.