I created the soundtrack for Ministry of Broadcast – an indie cinematic platformer game
This article contains spoilers.
I recommend using headphones to hear the detail in my work 😊
About the game: Ministry of Broadcast is a ‘cinematic platformer’ taking inspiration from classic video games such as Prince of Persia, Oddworld: Abe’s Odyssey and Flashback. The game’s narrative takes place over 5 distinct days and is set in an unnamed country which is governed by a totalitarian regime. Citizens take part in a reality TV show called ‘The Wall Show’ to try and win their freedom. The player’s character is never properly named, but the other in-game characters usually call him ‘Orange’.
First impressions: The first thing that struck me about the game was the fantastic pixel art with many nuanced animations that brought the world to life; the way that Orange pushes his hair back into shape when he wakes up, and the guard dog who would occasionally lean down to lick his own crotch, or the animations for the way characters die (the game often delights in gross moments)! There are many details like this that all needed unique sounds to match their animations. The second thing that struck me is how difficult the game is to play. I knew that my soundtrack should also reflect this brutal mood.
The Brief: The developers wanted the game’s location to feel different from anywhere on Earth. The idea was that the country had been annexed for so long that their technology and culture had evolved completely separately. I was given ideas like ‘they’d never been able to obtain WD40 so all metal is rusty’ and ‘they don’t know how to design things properly, so the mechanisms are wonky’. These ideas excited me as I could imagine and create a unique sound-world. This also affected music choices – some types of music are easily associated with specific countries (such as reggae being a Jamaican style) and we wanted to avoid that because it could be perceived that we were ridiculing an existing country. As the game is difficult we expected that Orange will die a lot – my sounds couldn’t be too repetitive when players have to repeat sections many times.
My aim: I discussed a few references with the development team to see what they liked and what could work in the game. The game Oddworld: Abe’s Odyssey with its industrial sounds and the TV show Fargo came up. Fargo stood out to me because it’s a very atmospheric sound – there are flourishes of music but from my perspective the soundtrack usually lets the locations speak. For example, when scenes are set in forests the wind in the trees and birds are most apparent. I’m a huge fan of ambient sound design. I wanted to focus the soundtrack of MOB similarly to Fargo so that the mood of each ‘scene’ would be expressed through sounds that Orange would hear in that location. Music would be used more sparingly to amplify moments of tension. In other words, I aimed to use music to highlight ‘action’ whereas the ‘exploration’ moments would be much more about atmospheric sound design.
The Crow: this was the first character we discussed at length. He’s an oddity in the game. Although it’s never explicitly stated by a game character, it becomes apparent over time that only Orange can see him – he’s a figment of Orange’s psyche. They have an odd relationship; occasionally the Crow is your best friend, but at other times he delights in your misfortunes. He has a lot of lines of dialogue in the game and occasionally guides you through tricky sections.
So, how to create sounds for a talking crow who exists only in your head? The developers didn’t have a reference for what they imagined, and I was given the cryptic advice “make him sound like the memory of a crow”. This started my biggest challenge of the game!
My first approach was subtle. I took recordings of real crows and applied a convolution reverb to them to suggest that the Crow was in the player’s head – he existed in a separate space from everything else in the game. After discussing this approach I got the feedback that it was too dark and weird – sometimes he should be your friend.
Then we looked at videos online of Ravens who have learned to talk in English! This was a great inspiration. It wasn’t an option to hire a Raven voice actor (😊), so I recorded myself saying nonsense words but trying to mimic the sound of a crow. This didn’t feel right either – it was too cartoonish.
So, I went back to the drawing board; The Crow is sometimes your friend and sometimes your enemy. He is a devious and cheeky character most of the time. I thought the best thing to do would be to go as close to reality as possible but with extra personality. I researched the most devious birds in the world and found recordings of them. Then I whittled the recordings down to those with the most obvious cheeky or nasty qualities and edited these for use in the game. I’m glad to say that over time it just started to feel right.
Unique sounds for everyday objects: the game’s art and animations are highly detailed; every new location has a unique door, button, lift or other object. For a platform game developed by a small team (7 full timers at its peak) there are a lot of unique art assets. Each of these objects has unique animations that require the sounds to be in sync. I wasn’t happy with the idea of reusing the same sound for each new object – I wanted a creaky old metal door in the sewers to sound distinctly different from a modern soundproofed studio door. This gave me a lot more work but it was my choice. I’m glad I did it this way because I could use these unique sounds to give areas their own identity. This small game ended up with 7000 sounds due to this choice.
Atmospheric sound: atmospheres had a large role to play in this game. I approached it by looking at the artwork for each scene and deciding what kind of mood it should have. Then I created loops that evoked the objects in that location (or objects I imagined were out of view in the surrounding area) and with the right mood.
One thing I love to do is select different wind loops based not just on the reality of the scene but also because of how they make me feel. Chilling icy wind is much more scary than blustery summer swells. They can be totally expressive.
Also, as the locations often have an industrial feel, I used a lot of loops with machinery in them and designed tonal layers that created a suspenseful mood. This played the part of both sound design and ambient music.
Day 4: On the game’s 4th day there is a war. I agreed with the developers that there should be no music. Music expresses emotions and we didn’t want to tell the player what they should feel when they’re trying to flee a bombing. Instead I tried to make the weaponry as expressive as possible. In the background I added warfare sounds that were processed to sound like they were being broadcast over speakers – just another suggestion that all is not as it seems and the war was planned for the reality TV show.
At one moment Orange is knocked out by a bomb and wakes up in a dream-like sequence. Here I designed sounds to feel like Orange is disoriented – he could be in the afterlife or dreaming. The bombing becomes bizarrely musical and the echoes on his footsteps are overly exaggerated. Nothing is realistic – he’s either going out of his mind, the show just got weirder or he’s dead.
Orange’s theme: initially I tried to understand who Orange is. He’s not a ‘hero’ as he makes questionable choices for his own gain. If he tries to appear like a tough guy he usually gets ridiculed for it. He’s not a big character and I remembered the old film music adage “never be bigger than your main character”.
I needed to write a theme for Orange that showed him to be scared, weak and a bit pathetic. He also goes through rather a lot of mental torment in the game so the theme also develops over each day to reflect his damaged psyche.
I tried to think of instruments that would represent Orange. I became excited with the theremin. There were many reasons why I liked this instrument. Firstly, it can sound like old communication devices such as a morse code beeper when you tap it, which evokes the idea of someone trying to reach the world over the wall. Secondly, it’s incredibly versatile – it can actually sound like a violin or a voice if played well. Thirdly, even when played incredibly well it still sounds fake. I loved this fake quality because Orange is a contestant on a reality TV show which appears to be a decoy for a brutal regime’s real intentions – a fake. Finally, the theremin has a simple sound. It’s actually just a sine wave which is one of the most basic sounds that exists. To me, that doesn’t sound ‘heroic’. I also used a detuned piano and a hang as they had simplistic and gentle qualities.
In these three examples you can see how Orange’s theme develops through the game as his mental state unravels.
Ministry of Broadcast often breaks the suspense with moments of comedy. I had great fun creating a surf-rock version of Orange’s theme for a section where he ‘surfs’ on patches of ice.
The Regime’s theme: I wanted to create a theme to represent the regime. This has to represent the power that Orange must fight against so musically it had to dominate Orange’s theme. Due to the fact that the game occurs over 5 days (as dictated by the regime) I started improvising with a 5/4-time signature and found a motif that I really liked. It was so simple but sounded great when combined with different chords. This meant that I could adapt the theme to many scenarios, and it would always have the same motif within.
Incidental music: throughout the game there are various scenarios which required unique music, such as this nuclear level.
Ministry of Broadcast has a lot of dialogue lines and we didn’t have the budget or time to record voice actors. I would have loved to record it all but as the game would be localized into 8 languages that wasn’t possible. Instead we inserted occasional voice recordings to suggest important dialogue (or just for mood) and often just left out the dialogue entirely.
Of all the soundtrack elements in MOB this aspect is the least filmic. It’s totally unrealistic to have voice files used in this way, but it didn’t seem to affect the mood of the game. The voices are basically just an extra sound effect, and the actual information is displayed on-screen in text bubbles. I wanted to avoid using the clicking or bleeping that some games use when text bubbles unfold – for me that sound is very annoying and not creative at all.
The spoken language is pure invented nonsense – it doesn’t match any known language. I literally invented it as I spoke into the microphone! The reason I did this was so that it didn’t have to be in sync with the text bubbles, and it wouldn’t need to be localised.
Mix and Implementation
Challenges: ministry of Broadcast was developed with Game Maker Studio 2. This program is very limited for sound options. Limitations aren’t always a bad thing as they force you to be more creative, but they do mean that you need a solid plan for implementation. Any sound I created had to be at the correct level that it should be heard in game. The sounds would be implemented, I would play the game to test them and make notes, then tweak them in my DAW and bounce out adjusted levels and then test them again. This was a slow process and I found it frustrating.
Reverbs: as we wanted a soundtrack that had atmosphere, I felt that we needed to give a feeling of depth to the sounds. Different locations should have different reverbs – a cavern should have a longer reverberant tail than a closet – just like in real life. Unfortunately, Game Makers Studio 2 doesn’t allow for dynamic reverbs to be applied to sounds by the game engine, so reverbs need to be rendered with the sounds before they’re implemented. I decided to limit myself to just 3 reverbs as this would result in 3x the amount of sound effects files. Although this idea seemed a good one early in development, I shouldn’t have bothered. It slowed me down a great deal and I should have just accepted that a cinematic game made in a program that doesn’t allow dynamic reverb should just keep it simple. That was a learning process!
Evaluating the results
My evaluation: I’m happy with my results; I think that we made a great game that sounds solid. The music is expressive and fits the scenarios and the sound design is moody and nuanced. I’m confident that my soundtrack complements Ministry of Broadcast’s great art, story and gameplay. I’m always very critical of my own work though; of course I wonder if the mix balance is right, if the complex approach to reverbs didn’t cause more problems than solutions or if the crow has the right voice. I know from all the projects I’ve worked on that this is just part of creative design – there is no right solution, you can only create within your limitations, seek feedback and check everything within their wider context as all sounds are part of the game’s overall experience.
“The musical choices were excellent from start to finish… the developer does a good job of quickly shifting the tone with a change of audio score. Often the music will be replaced entirely with just a scraping or clanking sound that seems to reside somewhere in your subconscious but makes you feel unnerved……The audio scores 18 out of 20” – SwitchUp
“Sound design is also very clever. The music and sound is presented in some unexpected ways that unfortunately mentioning would spoil the fun. What I can say is when the theme of the game changes the music does adapt. If things get more stealthy the music shifts into an interesting style which was both a surprise and a joy for the ears.” – Ladies Gamers
“Sound: 8/10. It’s the kind of minimalistic that actually works. The soundtrack is mostly comprised of eerie noises and sound effects, which fit perfectly with the overall bleakness of the game’s setting.” – WayTooManyGames
On the Steam store MOB is rated ‘VERY POSITIVE’, with reviews such as; “A work of art! Stunning pixel graphics, an outstanding (and very complimentary) soundtrack, along with a highly intriguing dystopian, Orwellian-esque setting” (ugljesar) and “some of the best sound design I have heard in gaming, either AAA or indie. Every dog bark, gun fire etc. was perfectly placed. The music hit every right tone through finding humor, dread, and solitaire. Just perfect.” (Sculii) – Steam Reviews
Check out MOB: