This is an article that Paolo Armao and I wrote for A Sound Effect. You can find the original article here: BLIND VR - A Perspective On Generating Emotions Through Sound. A huge thank you to Asbjoern Andersen, Fulvio Chiara and Tiny Bull Studios.
Blind is a narrative-driven psychological thriller game built for virtual reality developed by Tiny Bull Studios, where the player gets to explore its surroundings using echolocation.
We wake up as Jean, a young woman who finds herself in a strange room with a hazy memory and loss of sight. Led by the voice of the mysterious and unsettling Warden, the player uses echolocation to briefly reveal the outlines of objects, navigate the eerie mansion, solve puzzles and uncover the mystery of Jean’s past. Approaching the truth, however, Jean will be forced to confront her worst enemy – that which she does not, or will not, see.
It should be noted that this was never an exercise in simulating the experience of a visually impaired human being, but rather an exploration of how echolocation could be used as a game mechanic to guide the player through an experience where sight is limited by darkness.
Due to the circumstances, we found ourselves compelled to look for new solutions, and this affected our production: sometimes constraints can be twisted enough to become occasions to investigate and reveal new creative approaches.
In this article, we will discuss the challenges we had to face and the solutions we adopted to support the VR experience using sound and music.
It is hard to not consider emotions when we talk about immersive experiences. In Blind we wanted to focus on the concept of empathy to better represent the emotional status of Jean during gameplay.
Even though there were some evident restrictions based on the budget of a small indie team, we were driven by the curiosity of shaping the emotional experience throughout the whole evolution of the game.
Thus, we started designing an emotional engine to control Jean’s reaction to what was happening around her.
We got in touch with Vincenzo Lombardo, Associate Professor of Computer Science at University of Turin. Simone Pellegrini, one of his students, was working on a master’s thesis about the role of sound in creating emotions. His thesis analyzed the main speculations regarding emotional theories, from James-Lange to Two Factor Theory, and the emotional models (systems to classify emotions) derived from them, with a particular focus on theories that represent emotion as weighted reaction to cognition and world interpretation.
Inspired by Russel, Ortony, Clore, Collins and many others, Simone designed a model to guide emotional elicitation through sound during gameplay. As we had to strengthen our means, he researched sound design techniques to highlight the emotional state of Jean.
Keeping in mind that Jean is in a coma during the whole game, he focused his research on aural disease and aural illusion, using Weinel’s research as a starting point to analyze the aural representation of ASC (Altered State of Consciousness).
During QA sessions, we noticed that the emotional status was negatively influencing the player experience, i.e. distorting sounds that were essential for the gameplay or for the comprehension of the story.
Also, we had moments in which a particular emotional status was lasting too long, distracting the player from the main scope of the game.
After discussing it with the game designers, we worked on a “control engine” that reduced unwanted twists in the world perception of the player.
The results obtained during our R&D phase gave us the confidence to take sound design choices on solid theoric bases and inspired our creativity, giving us the power to solve audio-related challenges supported by documented principles and psycho-cognitive theories.
In the following example, sounds and voices previously heard are recomposed into a dynamic soundscape that reflects the altered mental state of Jean.
In Blind, the work behind the foley production was particularly intriguing, as we wanted to make the player feel the interactions with the world resonating into Jean’s body.
We know today that part of hearing happens (and resonates) through our body: tones between 4 Hz and 16 Hz can be perceived via the body’s sense of touch (but in this case we are limited by the technology used).
60 Hz, 120 Hz and 240 Hz resonates on our fingertips, and frequencies between 4 Hz and 60 Hz are perceived as a whole body vibration (Howarth and Griffin, 1988).
All the foleys for the main character were recorded together with Vito Martinelli at the Zero dB sound studios in Turin using a Sennheiser MKH 416 shotgun microphone, supported by a Barcus Berry 4000 PI positioned on the objects (Jean can interact with more than 120 objects placed in the environment, so this part of the production required extra care to convey the appropriate feeling to the players) or on the surface of the foley pit.
We later added some sub-harmonics using Waves LoAir and then filtering unwanted low frequencies using iZotope Neutron EQ and transient shaper.
In FMOD different tracks contained Shotgun mic and Contact Mic signal, thus giving us a more precise control to be used in different situations.
Environmental Modeling and Binaural Rendering
As Early Reflections help us determine the direction and the distance from an audio source, you can imagine how precise we needed to be in the case of Blind VR. After several attempts as mentioned above, our choice fell on the Oculus Spatial Reverb, a very precise rendering engine developed by the Oculus Developer Center.
We defined each room’s characteristic (room height - width - depth and walls reflectivity), automating these parameters through the use of FMOD snapshots.
Late Reflections (Tail) contribute to our sense of space and, in order to optimize CPU use, these have been managed through the use of FMOD standard reverb.
This solution for the environmental modeling thus consists in splitting the processing of Early Reflections and Late Reflections, mixing a World Geometry & Acoustics technique for the ER with the support of artificial (2D) reverb, computationally less intensive that gives more depth to the aural space.
As the game development process began in 2014, the available engines for binaural rendering were still in early development stage. During pre-production we had to decide which tools best suited our technical needs. This choice had a strong influence on our workflow, as the use of echolocation was one of the main mechanics of the game.
Furthermore, the binaural render plugin had to be compatible with the middleware (FMOD) and our target platforms (Oculus Rift, PSVR), making the support of third party developers essential. Luckily, the plugin developers have always been available for support, even though some of them were acquired by other companies and in some cases their development suspended
We knew from the start that music would be crucial to support the emotions of the main character and to drive the narrative. From the beginning we aimed to unify our visions and practices, as we wanted to achieve a more unified aural experience in the game, twisting and breaking the barrier between music and sound. Blind is a game about confronting your inner fears and dealing with regret and acceptance: one of the most interesting elements was the evolution of Jean's perception of time and guilt through the story. At the beginning of the game, she is listening to a song while driving the car with her brother, but as she gets in an accident time freezes and she finds herself struggling in a limbo made of pieces of her memories.
We started by working with Fulvio Chiara for the title song “Close Your Eyes” that plays on the car radio, and we all agreed that the player should experience the perspective of Jean on everything, both visually (when Jean becomes blind, the player is also unable to see) and aurally. This meant that we needed to provide to the player her perception of time and reality making use of every instrument at our disposal; the music was no exception.
The concept of “frozen time” in music is not something new and it was already explored by Gyorgy Ligeti in many iconic works (“I am becoming aware that there is an art to which I feel very close: the heaviness of time, the frozenness of time. The process of time not as a light dance but congealed, petrified.”). Over the last decades many composers have approached the concept of non-linearity of time and space, and one of the most notable examples in film music is found in the scores of Inception and Dunkirk, by Hans Zimmer, where he explored the perception of the fleetingness of time. We wanted this to be the starting point of our research and investigate the relationship between time and emotion, as Jean finds herself in a building made with bricks of frozen clocks, memories and dark thoughts.
This setting called for a different kind of score and that’s what I’ve been working on from the start. The music for Blind was created manipulating sonic elements of the game: sound effects, voices, footsteps, environmental sounds. These elements were processed and combined together to form a structure that supports the narrative design of the game through a musical codex: micro-elements of music that serve as leitmotif associated with each character and setting, rearranged in different orders based on the moment. This allowed me to work really close to the Audio Director and create a homogeneous soundscape where music and sound design blend into one unique aural experience.
Time freezes when Jean is listening to “Close Your Eyes” and she gets in a car crash. We decided that this new frozen world was ticked by an imaginary clock made with that song and the other sounds surrounding Jean (rain on the car window, windshield wipers moving and so on), to which I applied Paul Stretch, a very useful open source tool for extreme sound stretching, on instrumental stems of “Close Your Eyes”. I then used granular synthesis and micro pitch shifts to obtain a warm and emotional pad and as soon as I heard it I knew this was the sound we were looking for. I ended up using these layers as a base for several tracks and it became the common theme on which I built all the other cues.
At the end of the game, when Jean is approaching the exit of the limbo and is therefore going to wake up in her car, I processed the rain and windshield wipers to obtain some large menacing drums and used them as a cue to push a sensation of anxiety to the player while she is escaping, but also to suggest that she is reaching the end of her journey. Upon waking up, the drums turn back to being the sound of the windshield wipers revealing that she is stuck in her car right after the accident shown in the opening sequence.
One of the objectives which remained of utmost importance was not to overwrite the score. Blind is an introspective game with dark and hazy atmospheres. The music needed to flow seamlessly into the narrative, so I worked on dynamic drones that changed based on the position and distance of the player from the points of interest. They were crafted and edited according to the degree of emotional distress the character was feeling at that moment and combining several voice dialogues inside the textures.