Written by Gina Zdanowicz, images courtesy of Jae Hyun Yoo
What drew you to this project in the first place?
Spencer Bambrick (SB): For me, it was the beauty of the dream world coupled with the intensely emotional story. The developer of BestLuckbe, Jae Hyun Yoo, is a master at particle effects and animation from working at Riot and Walt Disney Animation Studios. As soon as I saw a gameplay video of one of the forest puzzles I reached out to him. We got to talking and he told me his thoughts for the story and I basically fell in love with it. I knew right away that I could do some really interesting musically, and the opportunity to write some compelling music with such beautiful artwork and story was not something I was going to pass up!
Gina Zdanowicz (GZ): When I saw the gameplay video, I was immediately drawn to the beautiful story and creative puzzles Jae created. There were plenty of opportunities to bring the story to life through sound and I was excited to collaborate.
Why was audio essential for the game?
We ended up devising a few interesting ways to tell the story of BestLuck through the music itself.
SB: Audio was an essential component of BestLuck primarily because the narrative is wordless. There is no dialogue whatsoever, so audio became at least half of the storytelling process. For this reason we ended up devising a few interesting ways to tell the story of BestLuck through the music itself.
We put one of the characters into the soundtrack as a Soprano vocalist to create the character without using words. The Soprano you hear in the soundtrack is meant to be the voice of the “dream girl” who leads you into the dream world. She’s your sole companion throughout most of the game. At one point, you even need to use your ears to follow her location. It’s subtle, but we thought it was a powerful way to make a strong emotional connection between the player and the dream girl.
Our vocalist, Mary Kate Jiménez-Wall sounds absolutely amazing as the dream girl, which helps to solidify the bond between the player and the character. She fit the part so well that we teamed up with Louie Aronowitz (guitar) to write an acoustic “ballad” that you’ll hear if you can manage to solve the final puzzle. This is actually the only time you’ll hear words in the entire game, and they are presented as lyrics to “When Cherry Blossoms Fade (Reprise).” This track is acoustic and very raw. We felt that, combined with the lyrics, it was a fantastic way to humanize the dream girl and take the player back into the real world.
GZ: Sound evokes emotion, establishes setting, develops characters, and advances the story’s plot. During pre-production we mapped out the sound design process and understood the need to rely on the players’ emotional reactions to guide them through the game’s narrative. For every interaction, a sound needed to clearly convey a specific feeling and context to immerse the player into the story.
It’s always an interesting process to create a soundscape that can convey a sense of space without voiced narratives. In Best Luck, we focused on Instrumentation, orchestration, sound design and implementation to drive the emotional story.
In the interaction zones, music helps build the relationship between the player and the mysterious dream girl.
Could you describe your process?
SB: We decided on a musical “palette” to represent each element of the game. In addition to the soprano vocals discussed earlier, we used a string quartet to represent the forest world of the dream. Since strings are so flexible and can play with such passion and emotion, this choice was a no-brainer. We worked with the ETHEReal String Orchestra and they really nailed it bringing out the beauty, as well as, the mystery.
To describe this unique dream world, we created a musical language. It needed to be something personal and intimate yet slightly off balance to represent the way dreams feel. We wanted to capture how everything makes sense on the surface but underneath something is not quite right. To solve this, we used cluster chords and added note harmonies, which captured the dream vibe nicely. We wrote in a traditional style but added a few “wrong” notes clustered together to achieve the dreamy mood then layered in harp harmonics and plenty of reverb.
We planned to create emotional effects which are somewhere between sound design and music as an extension of the storytelling.
GZ: Sound design adds another dimension to visuals by adding context and character. We planned to create emotional effects which are somewhere between sound design and music as an extension of the storytelling. These sounds can make the player feel uneasy, tense, frightened, or calm and relaxed.
The first sound the player hears is the UI sound effects. We used them to set the mood. In the games menu, we provide a sense of the player being in bed and drifting off to sleep.
Since the majority of the game takes place in a dream world, we relied on hyper-realistic sound design while creating a world that is believable and relatable to the player.
The scenes in the boy’s room, on the train, and in the library are set 10 years in the future allowing us to tie in a bit of the hyper-realistic design from the dream world.
Most of the puzzle sound effects are inviting. However, if you make a mistake like choosing the wrong door, you’re hit with a strong hiss and door slam to warn of the mistake.
Door slams in BestLuck
The door sfx are realistic but the reverb is hyper-realistic. It’s set more like you’re inside a room as opposed to outside in an open space. They have a mix of reality and hyperreality, familiar but also abstract. What do doors sound like in your dreams anyway?
Along with emotional sfx, there are emotional dynamics. Changing the sound of the last puzzle door provides contrast and rewards the player for making it through the game. If we didn’t have those differences, the areas of the game we want to really stand out wouldn’t be effective. We give the player’s ears a rest therefore making the special moments more important and well received.
The rain puzzle is a dynamic and defining moment. Until this point, the player has been calmly solving puzzles without real urgency. The timed rain puzzle kicks the player out of that comfort zone. The audio needed to reflect that. The doors and weather don’t cooperate. The sound is more dynamic and louder. Even the music portrays the race for time. The rain and lightning consumes the player and makes the puzzle more intense.
Sound designers choose which sfx the player focuses on during the story. However, in games, the players decisions can change the game’s state altering what is heard or focused on and the sound designer cannot control that. Therefore, the music and sound must dance together in the game. Instead of one of them leading and the other following, they bow in and out to tell the story.
Ambience sets the mood and also directs the player in parts of the gameplay. At the start of the game, you are dropped into a cold forest where a strong breeze blows. The ambient wind moves you through the story until you arrive at a puzzle where it fades out and the music takes center stage. If you stray too far from the puzzle area before completing it, the ambient wind comes back with a vengeance to direct the player to the puzzle area. This is especially effective because our ambiences are designed to have this easily noticeable contrast.
(Footsteps) need to feel somewhat surreal and peaceful to relate to the dream world, without allowing the tension and mystery to subside.
In the dream world itself, much of the gameplay is walking around in snow and exploring the terrain. Aside from a layer of ambience, footsteps are sometimes the only sounds. They need to feel somewhat surreal and peaceful to relate to the dream world, without allowing the tension and mystery to subside. To do this, we used multiple layers of footstep sounds in snow to add variety and to soften up inconsistencies or harshness. We also chose to mix the footsteps a bit louder so that it would draw the player’s attention to the movement within the dream. In game, the snow doesn’t have a lot of texture, so the footsteps were designed to provide that detail.
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How did you go about recording and designing some of the key sounds?
SB: The entire soundtrack was recorded remotely. Louie, Mary Kate, and Andrew Steffen (ETHEReal String Orchestra) recorded at their studios and I mixed them. The only exception was the track “When Cherry Blossoms Fade,” which was mixed by Sam Stauff. Sam also mastered the entire OST for the release on Spotify, iTunes, and Bandcamp via Materia Collective.
As the narrative changes from one piece of text to the next, I used deep, meditation-like exhales to create a sense of drifting off to sleep.
GZ: Since the elements are in the forest setting we wanted to keep the player immersed in the cold snowy night and adding the ice elements helped tie the sound into the palette. A number of Foley sessions were necessary to create all the unique sounds for the game, even for UI sound effects. We used bed sheets, a meditation pillow, a metal baseball bat, a crochet shark blanket, a grandfather clock, human breaths, and my bedroom doors to get the right sounds. I layered bed sheet movements with a metal bat hitting a meditation pillow. Those sounds became the menu narrative choice selection. I duplicated the pillow hits and reversed a layer. I softened the sound to almost a button click by using EQ, reverb, and volume automation. As the narrative changes from one piece of text to the next, I used deep, meditation-like exhales to create a sense of drifting off to sleep. It was a better fit than going with typical swooshes. I cleaned up ticks from a grandfather clock and processed them with reverb to create the intro selection sounds.
When the player fails a puzzle, we wanted to emphasize that frustration to help motivate her to continue. A simple, light, door-closing effect wouldn’t suit. We thought of the sound effects of the game Operation. The player must be calm and steady-handed as she pulls out the plastic organs but once she slips and glances the edge, an annoying buzzer stuns her. We used heavy door slams accompanied by a pneumatic hiss to provide that startling effect.
I love all things winter so my favorite sound effects are the footsteps in the snow. To get the specific ‘crunch’ I wanted, I stepped on a bag of sugar. I avoided using cloth movements to accompany the footsteps to keep things sonically simplified.
In-game, you will see some glowing elements emitting from certain objects throughout the forest. You are tasked with collecting them to fill the girl’s energy to unlock the love scenes. This sound was created layers generated from Absynth and sourced ice effects.
What it’s like doing mobile audio?
SB: It wasn’t clear that this was going to be ported to mobile when we first started working on BestLuck. Not much changed, but it did take some work to adjust volumes and slightly remix certain elements so that they would sit well on a mobile device. Mobile is a great platform because so many people play games on the go. I also feel like BestLuck feels very natural with touch controls, so I think it was a good choice on Jae’s part.
GZ: We didn’t have much in the way of audio limitations because we didn’t overcrowd the game with wall-to-wall audio. We didn’t use any effects processing in engine and weren’t able to implement middleware as we were brought on late in the project and Jae had already created hooks in Unity for sound. There was a bit more testing of the levels for the mobile port to ensure the sounds come across well over small speakers and headphones.
What were your biggest challenges (and how you resolved them), and any lessons learned you’d like to share with others?
The lesson we learned was definitely to push for a flexible middleware tool as early as possible so that the creative process isn’t interrupted by subtle bugs in the audio.
SB: I think our biggest challenge here was integrating the audio with the game engine. We weren’t brought on early enough to advocate using middleware, so our options were drastically limited once the assets were created. It took a lot of work and communication between us and Jae on how certain elements were to function and adapt to the player’s actions. I think we were able to smooth it out for the most part. But the lesson we learned was definitely to push for a flexible middleware tool as early as possible so that the creative process isn’t interrupted by subtle bugs in the audio.
GZ: It’s always a good idea to bring the sound team on board at the beginning of a project. Designing the game with sound in mind can yield great results. Unfortunately, sound is often looked at as an afterthought. I’d say things are changing and some developers are becoming more proactive about sound.
The formula to great sound design is 50% design and 50% implementation. Working with middleware or having more control over implementation would have offered us much more control over fading in and out the music and ambience as they danced together to tell their parts of the story. It would have been great to have control over some real-time effects and like reverb and filters to change the heavier ambience as the player moved away from the puzzles before solving them. Additional randomization of footsteps and even slightly changing their volume over time as the player walks or run for uninterrupted for longer amounts of time were all things we had hoped for but were unable to do in the end. The only control we had over the mix was trying to bounce the levels appropriately in our DAW while asking Jae to make a slight volume adjustment here and there.
What do you think players will enjoy most about BestLuck (besides the audio)?
SB: I think players will enjoy the simplicity of the game, and the elegance of the puzzles. The game is pretty straightforward and linear, which I think is refreshing. And these puzzle are mind-boggling. They’re the kind of puzzles where you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing until something pops into your brain and you have an “aha!” moment and then solve it. Those are absolutely my favorite types of games, and I think Jae did a fantastic job. The thought and care that he put into the puzzles will absolutely be apparent to players.
GZ: The blue and purple-ish blue hues evoke a serene and mysterious vibe just like in those dreams where you are in a place that feels familiar yet it isn’t quite right. Love scenes provide a break from the mysterious and emit a romantic, and warm and fuzzy feeling in the game. Jae really took the time to create thought provoking and immersive puzzles. Players will enjoy solving the puzzles as the follow the girl to ultimately find out what she is trying to tell you.
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