Bring the Noise: Justin Bell
To capture the lo-fi sound of South Park, Obsidian Entertainment had to ditch the notion that bigger is better.
Building a game from scratch comes with its own set of creative challenges, but so does making a game within someone else’s intellectual property. When Obsidian Entertainment, the studio responsible for Neverwinter Nights 2, Fallout: New Vegas, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, was tasked with designing South Park’s game, translating the essence of the series into a role-playing game format came with hurdles. For Obsidian Audio Director Justin Bell, that meant forgetting some of the tried and true rules of RPG sound design and instead melding Obsidian’s vision for what the game could sound like with that of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The result, Bell says, was a mix of traditional fantasy-style music and sound effects blended with some stomach slapping, mouth farting, lo-fi tricks to make the game, like the show, feel both epic and low brow at the same time. Here’s how South Park: The Stick of Truth got its signature sound.
Get In Media: You mentioned in your Game Developers Conference panel that Obsidian was trying to capture the “crappiness” of the show but in this fantasy RPG context.
Justin Bell: We work in an industry where we often get to work on these fantastical type of sounds, sounds that don’t really exist in reality, spells and sci-fi machinery, things that have no correlation in the real world at all. That really gives us a lot of creative freedom to set our imaginations free and try to figure out the coolest way that we can possibly express that…
A lot of sound designers, that’s our default inclination and we want to make something sound as incredible as possible. If you give us a game that has spells in it, our inclination is to make those spells sound very kinetic and with lots of energy and that’s just natural for us to want to do that. When we started working on South Park, our natural instincts [led us to do] what we do best and it turned out that that wasn’t actually what the project needed or what [South Park co-creator] Trey [Parker] had in mind. Learning to take a step back and to trust that going in, that direction would yield satisfactory results certainly was a challenge for us and it took us a little bit of time to recognize that yeah, ok, these guys know exactly what to do here and we should just go with that.
GIM: The solution that you came up with seems to be a pretty good compromise between having the classic feel of an RPG with what [South Park co-creator] Matt [Stone] and Trey wanted. How did you come to that compromise?
JB: It sort of evolved over time. The whole thing, it probably took about eight months to settle into what you hear in the game right now. Initially what happened was, we were just working on the game in the way that we saw was appropriate and Matt and Trey were very involved in the game, but they were very focused on other elements, the artwork and making sure the animation was authentic and true to the style of the show, making sure that the narrative worked right, making sure that the actual gameplay was what they wanted,…so they just hadn’t gotten around yet to really evaluating the audio. When they started doing that, they listened to what we were doing and their immediate instinct was, “That’s not at all what we would do on the show.”
They described it in very simple terms. This was the exact example they gave—if they wanted the sound of a piece of wood hitting a little kid, they wouldn’t get a little kid and hit him with a piece of wood, but they would just take a piece of wood and knock it against another piece of wood and make it sound as simple as possible. The thing is, that sort of went against our instincts. Our objective is to make the game as exciting as possible for the gamer. They are the target audience. We want to incentivize the gamer as they’re playing the game through the use of sound and provide them with exciting tactile feedback with audio, so that when they do something it’s rewarding for them to hear that. We felt like if we went in a very downplayed direction, we wouldn’t be providing them with enough excitement to justify the fantasy combat that was in the game.
When [Parker and Stone] said that to us, we were sort of skeptical that that would work. We wanted to talk them out of it, but ultimately, the truth is that we were making a game based on their IP. It really wasn’t about what we wanted for the game, it really was ultimately about what they wanted out of their game. That’s really the simple truth, so we just went with it. We went with what they asked for.
We really scaled back the scope and the sound of the sound design for combat and we put it in the game with the faith that they were making the right decision about the game. We just had to trust that that was the case and I think ultimately what led to the compromise of a blend between the understated sound effects versus the sounds that you hear in the game now was there was sort of a novelty factor to the understated sounds. When you heard them, they were sort of funny-sounding because they went counter to what your expectations were.
GIM: You mentioned that one of the effects that you put in was just the sound of you slapping your own stomach.
GIM: What is the weirdest place that you’ve ever found a sound effect?
JB: That’s definitely one of the weirder ones. South Park was full of things like that, [we were] constantly pushing the boundaries of taste with that project. It’s just because that’s what that IP is all about. It’s all about pushing the boundaries of what is considered taboo. There were many, many, many sounds in that game that were just completely out there in terms of what most people are comfortable with and we definitely had to just put any misgivings that we had to rest and just do the job and make it sound as funny as possible. The hitting the belly thing, I think, is the tamest thing I could give, but there were a number of others that were pretty out there.
GIM: Can you give me some examples?
JB: What kind of article is this? Is it G-rated?
GIM: We’re adults
JB: This is sort of toilet humor here, but one of the things that you do in the game is you pass gas. That’s one of the ways that you’re able to get through the environment in the game and you even use that ability against people that you’re fighting.
GIM: You can say fart. I’m an adult.
JB: [laughs] I know. I have a kid so I’m constantly hedging the way that I speak.
GIM: Go on, let’s talk about your farting.
JB: Yeah, getting those fart sounds, I’m like in front of a microphone, sitting there for like 20 minutes making fart noises in front of a microphone with my mouth and that’s my job. I come home and it’s like, “Hey honey, what did you do at work today?” “Yeah about that, I was farting in front of a microphone for three hours trying to find just the right viscosity of fart.” There were a lot of days like that.
GIM: In a case like that where you’re just mouth-farting for three hours, how do you know when you’ve gotten the right one?
JB: That’s an amazing question. Working on that project was full of those. How do you know when you’ve got the right fart sounds? I don’t know, you just know. There’s a certain authenticity. We’ve all been living with that bodily function for some time. You just know when it’s right. There are certain instincts.
GIM: Let’s talk about other projects you’ve worked on. I know you worked on Fallout: New Vegas. What was the biggest challenge on that?
JB: Fallout was an enormous game. I think that most of the challenges came from making a game that big feel like it was fully populated with sounds. Basically, it’s a big survival simulator out in the Nevada desert, and so making the game feel alive and just fully fleshed out in the amount of time that we had, I think that was the biggest, biggest challenge for us.
GIM: When you’re on a game that large, it just seems like you would run out of go-to ideas that you would have for sound. Was that an issue with coming up with that much content?
JB: That was definitely a struggle. When you’re working on something in such an intense way for such a concentrated amount of time, remaining creative is always a challenge. Finding something that is actually a worthwhile sound, it takes a lot of effort and there’s a certain amount of trust in yourself that you have to just allow yourself. We make games but we have to do them according to a schedule and when you’re doing that, you may not have the luxury of time to really get something to be 100 percent the way you may have envisioned it in your mind. A lot of times you may only get one opportunity to react to a certain task and so pacing yourself and allowing that process to happen, allowing that trust to happen, and understand that you may not be able to revisit the sound and that has to be ok is challenging for a lot of creative people.
GIM: Can you point to an example of a problem that got released in one of the games you worked on?
JB: On Dungeon Siege III, I worked on a lot of the combat stuff, the creature sounds, and the player abilities. I did the majority of those sounds and one of the things that I constantly struggled with was the sense of impact. When I was looking at the game and I was evaluating what it would sound like, what it would feel like if you as a player were to strike a creature or something like that, how impactful that would be. The game is a top-down game and you look at it from above. The characters are small, the visuals are sort of small, and so whenever we put a sound that seemed bigger than the visuals in terms of the low end and in terms of how big the sound was, it always felt wrong to me.
I really pushed for a case that, “Hey we should scale these sounds back.” When the game came out, a lot of people reacted to the smallness of those sounds and they said, “Wow the combat doesn’t feel very visceral. It doesn’t feel very impactful.” I knew that that was because I was pushing for those smaller sounds. At the end of the day, what happened there is that I allowed my own personal take and I evangelized that without regard necessarily to what the gamer wants…Ultimately having that understanding of what a gamer wants and what they’re ok with and what they expect, that was an invaluable lesson. Now I’m way more sensitive to that when I’m making those sorts of decisions. You constantly have to balance what your personal tastes are for any given sound and balance that against what’s actually in the best interest of the project that you’re working on.
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