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Want to know what goes into creating audio for an indie game? In this new interview by Adriane Kuzminski, she speaks with Norwegian sound designer & composer Martin Kvale who's behind the sound for just-published Bad North from Plausible Games. The interview is available in both a video version, as well as a transcribed version - so pick what works best for you:
Written by Adriane Kuzminski. Images courtesy of Plausible Concept and Raw Fury.

Edited from the video transcript for brevity and clarity.


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Adriane Kuzminski’s interview with Martin Kvale

 

The Martin Kvale interview – transcribed:

Hello, everyone. Today I would like to share with you my interview from last January with Martin Kvale. Martin is the sound designer and composer on Plausible Concept’s real-time strategy game, Bad North.

Martin and I originally met back in 2013 at AES New York. There we bonded over our mutual love for Norwegian Rap. Since then, Martin has gone on to work on many games, to include GoNNER, Hidden Folks, Owlboy, Keyboard Sports, Genital Jousting, as well as the upcoming Sable and Mosaic.

I also want to mention that Bad North has just been released on Android and iOS, and you can get the Jotunn Edition DLC on any platform. Plus, you can now listen to the soundtrack on Spotify.

So, let’s begin the interview!

Adriane Kuzminski (AK): Hey, Martin!

Martin Kvale (MK): Hey, good morning. Or evening… afternoon?
 
AK: [Looks at clock] Almost the end of morning [laughs]. So, could you tell me a little bit about a Bad North?

MK: Yeah sure, Bad North is basically a tower defense real-time strategy game. It’s like a miniature diorama-like experience where you defend your islands from raiders, Viking-like raiders, that try to come and pillage your lands.
 
AK: So I started to play this game and what I found to be really cool was just how oppressive yet charming the sounds were. Could you tell us a little bit about the emotions you’re trying to evoke in the players?

MK: Yeah! So, I think the emotions I wanted players to have while playing the game wasn’t that well thought of before the sound design was kind of nailed, but I knew that what kind of felt right very early on was a mix between realistic and unrealistic sounds. Some sounds seemed that they would fit and other sounds would maybe sound good, but not necessarily fit in a realistic setting.

But basically, we wanted to make it feel like there were these small people, or abstractions of people, that you would have in front of you. Like, the first iteration was actually like a mobile game, so the first time I tried it, I was sitting like this you know [mimes controlling an iPad with his thumbs] and I would turn things around and I would see these little people in my hands running around.

So, I think very early on we made a demo video, and it had some ideas of how they would sound like: when they hit someone, what they would sound like when they would run around and die and everything. So, it’s just kind of seemed to fit sort of like a mix between GoNNER and Keyboard Sports, where we made it sound realistic but small, as small as it would look like on a screen. So, abstract, but realistic in equal doses you could say.


 
AK: I watched your GDC talk from GoNNER and you had mentioned that you don’t like footsteps. Did this apply for Bad North, too?

MK: Um, yeah definitely! I mean footsteps was one of the first things that worked which made me really happy because then I didn’t have to iterate on it a lot. Basically I just made it so the footsteps would be kind of this "bip, bip, bip, bip, bip" – like, kind of cutesy. And it sort of fit the style, so I didn’t have to think about it for the next six months [laughs].

But yeah, I don’t really like footsteps, and it’s actually the reason as you saw in the talk probably why I ended up working on GoNNER because I saw a GIF and I immediately kind of felt that indication of movement that sound could be, and that game would be like the generation of tiles around the character, not like the steps itself.

I think over enough years I now have gotten to the point where I find footsteps like a chore.

I think over enough years I now have gotten to the point where I find footsteps like a chore. It’s got to go in and you can definitely do amazing things in footsteps and player character movements, like there’s a lot of cool potential, but I think personally, I don’t find it interesting.
 
AK: I also like your use of the rain sounds and the wind chimes and the loading screens and just all these beautiful, relaxing textures. It really makes it relaxing even though it’s all about getting killed over and over again.

MK: That’s actually good that you say because it’s definitely like a weakness that I had from doing the GoNNER approach is that, well, this is generally how I always like to work. I work very experimental, so when I make something, it’s usually I make that, but I don’t make it with any intention so when I put something in the game it’s because I think, “Oh, I think this could work as this,” but I don’t have like 10 variations, I don’t have like 50 die sounds. I have the sounds I’m testing it with and if it fits immediately, then it’s like, well then, it’s almost like can I make this work without becoming repetitive, right?

So I think most of the sounds except, most of the voice sounds is like me and another person and a lot of the footstep sounds – like the basic footstep sounds – is only two sounds, I think. So, it’s quite sparse. I don’t have 30 of one sound anywhere. Actually the only game I have that I think is for sheep in Hidden Folks that has maybe 34 sheep sounds. Which is totally unnecessary, but I don’t know maybe some people care.

Video Thumbnail

Bad North presents The Joy Of Pillaging with Robert Ragnar Ross

 
AK: The sounds have a lot of punch and they’re very threatening – even though they sound small, but they feel big. What was your approach to that sound design in general?

MK: I was very inspired actually by The Settlers game series, like Settlers 1, 2 and 3 specifically, which I played a lot of a kid, and I just kind of liked that they felt so cute but they would still fight each other, and with Bad North I wanted it to be very cutesy and pleasant, but we definitely also wanted to show that this is a diorama of battle, but it’s a diorama of a real battle, so these creatures are dying, these people are dying and you see that as well with – you can turn it off if you want – but you can see a lot of blood. So once an island is done, you see the smoking chars of houses and the whole island is pink with blood from fallen foes and friends basically.

I kind of liked the abstract thing of having this cute diorama game, but making it feel very serious in moments.

So I kind of liked the abstract thing of having this cute diorama game, but making it feel very serious in moments. For instance, there’s some enemies later on, there’s like this huge tank, and we designed the approach music and ambience when they were approaching to be very ominous to give people almost heart beats, to get that up, to make them feel like, "Oh, these people are very hard. This is really serious now. You’re in danger."

It’s a lot of focus on, once you kind of get in and just enjoyed the game in general, the game will tell you in many places that okay, this is actually serious and it’s hurtful and these people die, because they have a lot of personality. So I thought that was fitting.

 
AK: Two details that got me with the game was when your archers get all of the soldiers who are on the boat, so if they all die before the boat reaches the island, the boat comes along and it’s just this empty boat [laughs] that reaches your shore. And I don’t know, there was something very tragic about that. Also, when you can knock your soldiers off a cliff into the water and the bubble sounds of when they’re drowning. Like, it’s cute, but it’s very tragic at the same time.

I really like constraints if you listen to the GoNNER talk, I love putting frames to what I do.

MK: That was some of what I found was the most fun, and it was basically marrying these two other styles of games that I worked on. And it was very fun to do because it’s sort of meant that I could experiment a lot within these constraints. And I really like constraints if you listen to the GoNNER talk, I love putting frames to what I do. And it was nice to kind of have two concepts of sound design kind of mingle and see what happens.

For GoNNER, for instance, the constraint that had was I could only use this one tool, the OP-1 Synthesizer. Like for Hidden Folks, only mouth sounds and no treatment of said mouth sounds, kind of like a Gonzo editing even, like there could be small mistakes in it and it was fine. But with Bad North it was definitely fairly loose, it was kind of like whatever fits was good.

With the music, that was way looser. I’m not usually working as a composer much, so that was more I wanted to challenge myself to make music for the game. The one constraint that I had was I want the sounds to speak for themselves as much as possible so I don’t want music to be always in the background. I have it for specific things like the menu and the map for instance, but if you get far enough ahead from enemies on the map screen, then the music sort of dissipates, and it’s just ambience instead – quite natural ambience of wind and a little bit of waves.

And especially when in game, I also wanted it to be like music should be very functional and if it’s not very functional I don’t really want it in. So, each enemy type has a different kind of sound when they approach as a wave. They have landing music, and those are like their cues in a sense. So when you play it the first time you will hear a new kind of music – and you haven’t heard it before and it’s maybe like 20 levels in – and you by then kind of know, "Oh shit, something new is coming. I don’t know how or what this will be."
 


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AK: One thing that I’ve noticed with playing your other games, and with Bad North, is how you’re able to mix so many assets. You have very unique textures and those textures never feel repetitive or annoying because of how they’re mixed. Even in Hidden Folks, for me, usually mouth sounds really bother me [laughs] – usually! – and I was playing the game and I was like, "I’m not bothered by these mouth sounds." Almost always – it’s just usually something that gets on my nerves, and it didn’t get on my nerves at all with Hidden Folks.

MK: Thank you.
 
AK: And it didn’t feel repetitive either, which was amazing just because it’s all mouth sounds, it’s very constrained. So, what is your approach to mixing and implementing lots of different textures?

MK: Basically the fact that I get in early into a project, it allows me to have a lot of time and then I could very much let things sink in and basically at my own pace when things annoy me I go on and iterate them. Because I spent so much time with the game, I always get tired of things, because I will spend a large portion of the time sitting with it. So when the game is released already, I basically already had a year or two to iterate and kind of make sure about these things.

I believe iteration is king when it comes to games. Nothing is ever done before it’s done.

It’s different for everything. With Hidden Folks we also have a special sort of rules for what is sort of like background sound and what are interesting sounds that are interactable or hint at people or something like that, but I think it’s just a lot of iteration. I believe iteration is king when it comes to games. Nothing is ever done before it’s done, which can annoy people if they’re very much like "list" people like, "Can I have this done by that day?" I’m like, "Well, maybe, but I will still work on it."

I think probably the first game I did called Among the Sleep, which is like this baby horror game, that kind of at least got me very sensitive to ambiences, because I’m not much of a composer, but I kind of wanted to turn it into a strength for the game. So the game relies on ambience, almost like musical ambiences in the sense that organized noise is music, but otherwise I really rely on a lot of people around me. I listened to my teammates. I think I was lucky when I came in to get people who would teach me, like Jory Prum who was my first mentor, and I have good friends like Eirik Suhrke from Spelunky and Joonas Turner from Nuclear Throne, Nycklas Nygren, Rich Vreeland, Bendik Høydahl and Arild Iversen from Funcom. You know, like all these people that I just send stuff to. Like, I need to get out of my head sometimes, and it’s good to have other people telling you what they like and don’t like.

To get it to level I would like it, I kind of need to have it abstract, to be happy with what I do.

I know that I could never compete with any Blizzard game, or Battlefield 1 which I found was amazing sound design. Like, a lot of these impressive games that have teams of like 20 people who solve purposes, like one small part, like the Guerilla team has at least five, maybe within five to ten, I guess. I don’t have those resources. So I think if I try I’ll fall short, and I also don’t have the resources or the skill to do these kind of realistic things. To get it to level I would like it, I kind of need to have it abstract, to be happy with what I do. I guess that’s why I really like this kind of weird games I’m doing, right?

I kind of get to at least not be necessarily sick of what I do because I’m not a perfectionist in a sense but it’s been very educational. I’m working on a game right now, where it’s like there’s a composer involved, there’s two other sound designers for listening and critiquing who are sort of looking for gaps and pops and attenuation issues and stuff like that. And those things I’m not good at hunting down at all, but it’s really, really fascinating to see people who have the preference of being disciplined and thorough and how amazing they can make something be.

 
AK: With the Norwegian, well, the Scandinavian game scene in general – you have the Copenhagen Game Collective, you have the group in Hamar, you have Raw Fury in Sweden – for people who are trying to get into the Scandinavian development scene, what would be some advice that you’d have for them?

MK: I think with audio especially, and quite a few others probably, but audio is so much based on if you can work on many projects – and often you need to, to cover rent and stuff like that. So, personally, what worked for me very much was going around meeting people. I love to travel and I love to meet people, like that’s how I got to meet you, right? I traveled and went to AES in 2012, I think?
 
AK: ’13, I think.

MK: Might have been ’13, yeah, in New York. And I think basically the more I travel, the more I kind of feel projects sort of happen. Like, I’m not good at selling myself and I say a lot of stupid things, but I feel like after some time, I guess people know me well enough that I say stupid things anyways, but at least I’m serious about making sounds for games. So I think basically the work I’ve done before is a good business card.

I think with Krillbite, the first kind of thing I did to get to work with them, which I’m still working there today, was actually approaching them with this really small iOS game I worked on when I was a student in Australia called Abrawordabra, I think? And I showed them like, "Hey, I’ve worked on games! Check out this game and listen to it!" Right?

It’s a small community in Scandinavia, it seems. We have a joke that we have one Martin for each country.

It’s a small community in Scandinavia, it seems. We have a joke that we have one Martin for each country [laughs]. It certainly helps to travel around and just be like nice and collaborate and jam and have a beer every once in a while, or beverage of course if you don’t drink. A good tea is also perfect.
 
AK: Yeah, exactly. Come to the Sightglass, have some coffee.

MK: Exactly. Yeah, Sightglass is amazing.
 
AK: Yeah, always so early though [laughs].

MK: Oh yeah, oof.
 
AK: And we’re preparing for that again.

MK: That’s why I can see that it’s valuable, because it’s so early, it’s in the middle of a really hectic conference, but still people meet up enough that there’s like three rows now, right?

 
AK: I know, basically the entire top floor. Just rows and rows of people. But yeah, you’re right. It’s pretty amazing that people show up so early.

MK: But it is very valuable. Like, I remember the first year I was at GDC, it was amazing. I mean I got to meet a lot of amazing and really kind people and everyone seems happy and positive and willing to teach and stuff. And the only time I’ve ever like fan, fan-personed out?
 
AK: Fanned out?

MK: Yeah, fanned out, was standing next to Matthew [Marteinsson] actually, who did Don’t Starve, and I was playing that so much at the time. So we’re talking a little bit, and at some point I’m like, "Yeah, so what do you do?" He’s like, "Don’t Starve" I’m like [surprised gasp], you know, like hard breathing like, "Oh my God, I love that game! I was playing it so much those days!
 
AK: How did you come together as Plausible Concept with Oscar Skålberg [correction: Stalberg] and Richard Meredith for working on Bad North? Not a very good transition there [laughs].

MK: No, I was just admiring the way you said “Skullberg”, that sounds pretty badass.

Basically it’s a lot to do with Raw Fury. I’ve grown pretty tight with them in a sense. I’m working now on game #4 and #3 with them, because I’ve done Bad North and GoNNER and it’s now Sable and Mosaic, and it’s all with them. So basically, I think it’s again a little bit what I said earlier that we got to know them and it was pretty early when they were setting up their company, and I think there were three or four people working there back then. So, I got to know them and at some point, when they got the new studios, they would suggest me sometimes for some of the games like, "Oh yeah, you should talk to Martin. We know this guy. He can do sounds."

So that was K.M. who is part of Raw Fury who I think suggested me to Oskar, and I was in Copenhagen and I took the trip over to Malmö which is like a 40-minutes train ride, and we had a casual coffee and agreed to do a sound test.

 
AK: What’s your favorite way to play Bad North? What’s your favorite platform? Since it’s on just about everything.

MK: I think mobile when it will come out, like probably my iPad where I play a lot of games.
 
AK: It is coming out for mobile?

MK: I have no clue if it’s been confirmed, so maybe we should…
 
AK: Oh, okay [laughs].

MK: No, I think it’s confirmed, yes, yes, it’s definitely confirmed. Yeah, it’s coming out. I try to kind of stay away from my work computer as much as possible when I play games.
 
AK: Yeah, I’m the same way.

MK: So like PlayStation, Switch and iPad are my go-to things. These days I’m playing a lot of Age of Empires, no wait, Civilization 6, which is amazing for iPad.
 
AK: Yeah, I haven’t been able to get into them, well, it’s one of those games where I think I’m going to get completely addicted to it, so it’s kind of like games by Blizzard, where if I delve into it, I’m going to never stop playing it, so it makes me not play it.

MK: No, same. Like Diablo 3, for instance, I really don’t like it, it’s like a game I don’t feel like playing, but if I start playing it, I will just play it for like fifty hours before I put it away. It’s very pleasant.

I feel like with Blizzard games, they polish so well that there’s nothing really sticking out annoying you. I guess that’s also why I like Civilization 6, because nothing is grating me when I play it. The same with Overwatch, actually. I like to play Overwatch a lot, because I never get the feeling – this is going to sound maybe arrogant – but I guess the professional ear would always suggest to me like, “I would have done this” or “I would have done this.” But when it comes to Overwatch, or Civilization 6 right now, I don’t get any of that. I just have, this is the way it should sound. My brain just completely relaxes and I manage to not think about it and that’s like a blessing more and more.
 
AK: And my last question, where can people follow you and follow your work?

MK: Oh yeah! I have a Twitter account that I try to use a lot, which is @martinkvale, which is spelled K-V-A-L-E. My first name, Martin, is spelled like how you would maybe guess it. And the same goes for my webpage: www.martinkvale.com. Or you could check out Steam store and maybe find me somewhere in a game there, but mostly the website page and the Twitter.


AK: So there you have it! I want to thank Martin for speaking with me and for being so patient while this interview was being edited. I also want to remind everyone that you can play Bad North on PC, Mac, Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Android and iOS. Thanks for watching!


Extra clip:

AK: I would say you all [the Krillbite team during the Among the Sleep dialogue] sound very stoic, which is not too far of a stretch from being Norweigan [laughs].

MK: [In a deadpan voice] Yes, I am terribly happy now. I feel great sadness.
 
AK: [Gets a kick out of it] Very nice.

 

A big thanks to Martin Kvale for giving us a look at the charming sound of Bad North – and to Adriane Kuzminski for the interview!

 

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