Realms Beyond – A classic turn-based fantasy RPG

Sound Design #1: Details are everything

To fork into some different territory and cover more aspects of Realms Beyond, we have prepared a few blog posts about game design and technology. To start things off, let’s have a look at the sound design.

It’s an obvious thing: Atmosphere is not only a visual thing, and it’s not only created by gameplay. There are many more factors at play, so many, in fact, that it’s hard to even count them. Atmosphere is what you get when you put all the components of a game together and everything fits. Often overlooked, but without a doubt, one of the key elements to create an engaging sense of atmosphere is the sound design. Imagine, if you will, an RPG without driving combat themes, or an epic main theme. It would feel like a movie with the TV muted. Distant, remote… But not only the music is of importance, sound effects and atmospheric sounds are every bit as important. It’s all in the details.

Realm of Arkania InventoryBut what are those sonic details? Let’s pick one and discuss. If you look back at games like the original Realms of Arkania trilogy (Das Schwarze Auge: Die Nordland-Trilogie) you’ll find that a great deal of detail went into those games, the likes of which you won’t find in games nowadays anymore—which is really a shame. Just take the inventory, for example. There’s even special, unique sound effect playing when you put some new leather gloves on one of your characters. Even the most minute details were carefully designed and considered.

Unfortunately, over the years, sound design in roleplaying games has changed—and not all for the better. While sound effects may be better produced these days, with a lot of oompf and high in-your-face impact, consider for a moment what happens these days when you put some new clothes on a character? Right. There’s a generic little bling-bling sound and that’s probably it. In some cases, it’s a rather atmospheric sound effect, but in most cases, you will that it is a nondescript something without real character or representation of the action.

That’s not to say that this is inherently bad. It works in many games but it doesn’t create atmosphere. It’s just there to fill the silent void. Back in the days, you had a plethora of different sounds. Not for every item, but at least for different item classes. For swords, for leather gloves, for steel gloves, for helmets, and so on. You heard short, unobtrusive sounds that told you: Alright, you just put on a heavy armor. And you could tell from the sound effect alone.

Realms Beyond ItemsIt is details like those, things that don’t make a huge difference in the game as a whole, but add a little special attention to things that we want to achieve in Realms Beyond. Naturally, not every item in the game will have its own sound effect (with over 2000 items in the game, that would be an exorbitant number of sounds), but there will be a great many small sounds for several item classes. If you change from a dagger to a heavy sword, you’ll hear the Shing! of steel. Putting on leather gloves will play a different sound than putting on brass gauntlets. You get the drift.

Many people—and game designers—do not realize just how much impact such a small detail can have on the overall atmosphere of a game. But once it’s there and you get used to it, you will find playing a modern RPG with its generic sound effects, strangely out of place. Because you expect more. You expect atmospheric details and a generic, soft Whooosh! or click just won’t do it any longer.

Comments in the forum