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Designing the Musical Game World of No Straight Roads

Game Audio / Sound Design

Wow, hello, fellow game audio folks! We would love to share with you how we used Wwise and Unreal Engine to bring the hyper-stylised musical world of No Straight Roads (NSR) to life. At Imba Interactive, we worked on the sound design and all the technical integration for NSR. Wwise has been an invaluable tool for us to realize our creative desires.  In this post, we will share a mix of implementation for music and sound effects as well as some of our creative decisions for the project. 

Vinyl City

 

To provide some background, the game is set in Vinyl City, which is governed by the (corrupt) EDM Empire, NSR. The city is divided into several unique districts, each playing host to an NSR artist and musical style. A piece of technology called “Qwasa” turns the music into efficient energy which in turn powers the city. 

Players play as rock duo “Bunk Bed Junction”, made up of guitarist, Mayday and drummer, Zuke. What begins as an abuse of power by NSR against rock music at a music reality competition show quickly becomes an all out revolution to overthrow NSR, hijacking performances, one district at a time.

“Hijacking a Concert”

Our core user experience goal is to have our protagonists Mayday and Zuke feel like rock musicians deliberately messing up a show, but not in an unprofessional way; they have to outplay their musical adversaries with style.

We had to consider how disruptive or cohesive our sound design will be during the pre-production process because player based inputs would not be in sync with the music, while everything else in the world is. The sound design for player input has to be consistent with their Rock genre qualities while boss arenas and attacks have to be cohesive with their respective genre.

Designing the Sounds for No Straight Roads

 

Following up on the idea of hijacking a concert, here are some additional pillars we referenced from the Metronomik team’s creative direction as we were doing sound design for No Straight Roads. In boss fights, positive reinforcement should feel awesome and satisfying - also in a way that it is relevant to the music culture. All boss attacks should adhere to the phases and the rhythm of the music, with some of the sounds being hints to follow up attacks or movement actions.

Circle of Influence (COI)

This particular feature encapsulates the idea of hijacking a concert really well. Players hold down a button in order to power up objects in their vicinity, but what ensues sound-wise is an attempt to disrupt the performance by unleashing a loud but relevant guitar/drum solo over the existing BGM. Many players just end up triggering the COI for fun, just to listen to the killer drum and guitar solos.

In an early proof-of-concept test, we used a guitar track that played a scale in the song’s corresponding key.

 

The concept worked, but we wanted something more in line with the key pillars of the game and something that felt really satisfying. Following that, we came up with a draft guitar solo to pitch to the music team to do something for it.

Ultimately, we managed to convince the composers and sessionists to track unique solos over every BGM in the game with playable characters! In Wwise, there is an RTPC each for Mayday and Zuke. These RTPCs will trigger a linear crossfade between the character’s instrument solo and either the Melody(Mayday) or Rhythm(Zuke) layer of the BGM.

Zuke’s Combo System

While Mayday’s attacks in the game are rather straightforward (like Mayday herself) where she literally uses the guitar as an axe-like weapon, Zuke has a Melee Combo System that begins with a 5-hit “Max Combo” and is upgradeable to 9-hit. 

Players playing as Zuke needed to feel like a pro (air) drummer. Of course there’s the COI feature mentioned above, but we felt that being the methodical person Zuke is, he needed something else in his attacks. Having drum sounds as the impact sounds was an obvious go-to, but as we approached the end of a successful chain in the Max Combo, we needed to cue players about it amidst all their button mashing. 

Here’s a video of an early concept of Zuke’s melee attack’s sound design. Eventually the triangle button was repurposed to be used a different way, so it’s a little different in the final game.

As illustrated below, what we attempted to do was to make each hit feel like a quarter-note in a bar of music. Then the second last hit of a max combo would trigger a clearly different-sounding set of 16th-note fill-in that would culminate in a crash on the final combo hit. Another effect this has is the anti-climactic feeling of a missing crash cymbal when a player doesn’t land the final hit.

On the Wwise side, we had 3 separate events, each tied to a specific animation: 

  1. Standard melee hit(s)
  2. Pre-finisher hit
  3. Finisher hit.

The animation logic happens mainly in Unreal Engine. From the Blueprint above that belongs to a 9-hit Max Combo, you will see that “forcefully set 7” comment there. With the first hit indexed as “0”, the pre-finisher hit would be “7” and the finisher hit “8”.

Music in the Sewers

 

This was a fun one; the sewer BGM was composed as an 8-bar loop, but with 9 variations that would switch depending on which area the player was at – from the selection area, to zooming in to areas where they are playing an underground gig, or upgrading their instruments at the workshop. Every variation had post-exit tails, while some of the variations had pre-entry pickups like guitar slides. The BGM event would wait for the end of 8 bars before deciding when to change tracks, and what track to change it to, instead of immediately changing a track every time the player changes the active location as an immediate switch is potentially annoying or immersion breaking.

Sound “Toys”

We wanted players to feel a sense of satisfaction after obtaining a trophy as a collectible in a subtle way, since the sewers environment is pretty relaxed. 

Like the switching of the BGM itself, this is not an explicitly explained feature, but something that players with a keen ear will start noticing. Whenever the player chooses to display the trophy unlocked from that level, a fun little 2-beat rhythmic pattern will fire off once every 4 bars at a fixed point in the 8-bar loop as an additional layer on top of the sewers BGM.

 

The audio design for each pattern is determined by the theme of the level, so for example, Sayu’s trophy used mouse clicks as she is the ‘Digital Idol’, Eve’s trophy has audience gasps and laughter (Tragedy and Comedy, quite literally), and DK West has hand claps from his in-game sound design, etc.

There are a total of 9 trophies players can obtain; 8 of which are from tutorial and boss level completion, and a 9th and final one after the player completes the story the first time. This works out nicely as the first 8 would each come in and out and perfectly fill up a 4-bar phrase, while the 9th and final trophy instead triggers an electronic drum loop layer on top of the Bunk Bed Junction BGM in the sewers. Serendipitously, this has some significance to the story as well.

Implementation was rather straightforward; each item was tied to their respective RTPCs and the audio would trigger accordingly. As we can see from the screenshot above, the bar and beat in which each 2-beat phrase is triggered is fixed, but does not necessarily follow sequence. For example, the first trophy that players unlock does not necessarily trigger the phrase that happens on the first beat of the 8-bar loop. Instead it is spread out as evenly as possible, so that the rhythmic pattern “add ons” always feels nicely spread out with the BGM and not lopsided or predictable.

Bosses and Enemy Sound Design

So to keep sound effects cohesive with the game world, we tried to use musical instruments in our sound design process. For example, for most of the drones in the game we decided to use sounds from the TR-808 as part of the design as the drones are the most “basic” security units in the No Straight Roads empire.

 

 

For DJ Subatomic Supernova, the Wwise effects used are inspired by analog turntables and by DJ effects pads such as gates, tape delay, filters, flangers and more.

Also we had to be mindful that even our effects might create a unique distinction between bosses. So we did not use glitches for the DJ but we did use glitches for the boss after him which was Sayu.

unnamed

Sayu is a virtual idol mermaid controlled by 4 teenagers. So for her case, we wanted attacks and synth tones to feel as if they are a part of the game’s soundtrack as well. So most of her attacks are in the same key or they use a part of the soundtrack’s melody, so they could be like those sci-fi targeting sounds that you’d normally hear, but instead of a rising blip tone it could be a quick version of the melody that the player already hears in the battle.

Also, because of its Japanese influence (vocaloids/virtual idols) it felt like a great idea to use cliches from Mahou Shoujo (Magical Girl) anime as well; most of the transformation actions are punctuated with synths.

There was one particular line that used a time delayed bypass release for reverb and delay effects, here’s how it was done: 

 

As mentioned above, Sayu’s transformation involves glitch effects. Just a simple RTPC that controls the output of an aux bus and Sayu’s voice.

10- Sayu Voice RTPC

For Yinu and her mother, we went for a Disney-esque vibe, especially for the note bounces. This is to emphasize on the child-like setting yet mature story arc. The mother’s voice effect changes as she evolves from a caring, protective other to a scary helicopter parent of your nightmares.

Eve brings about an eccentric and avant-garde personality, but behind this exterior is a longing to find someone to love and accept her for who she is, and finding the strength inside her instead of depending on others for that love. 

For the hands in the 1st phase, they embody dissonant parts of her voice as they swing to attack, the player would hear little echoes when the moving hands attack. When switching between Mayday and Zuke, there is also a slight, momentary pitch bend for the music, as if her mind is readjusting.

Music System

Phases

In the game, boss fights are separated into Phases. Music in each phase is discrete and will loop endlessly, boss attacks will correspond to the music in the loop. Whenever a phase is cleared, a musical transition and a short cutscene will follow it and the game will transition to the next phase. 

Phase 1 > P1t2 > Phase 2 > P2t3 > Phase 3 and so on.

In Wwise, the boss fight phases are divided into States and will be triggered via the Level Blueprint in Unreal Engine. The genres are divided into Switches and are also triggered via the Level Blueprint..

Wait... did we say Genres?

Genres

That's right! Each boss will have 3 genres of music – BASE, WUBS, and ROCK.

The 3 genres will have identical BPM, form, chords, melody to enable switching between them, each genre will be divided into Melody, Rhythm and Backing. The content of Melody and Rhythm should be similar, this is to facilitate seamless swapping.

 

(images of initial music implementation structure by NSR’s Music Director, Falk Au Yeong)

During the initial process, base versions were created first, then iterated upon as and when the in-game mechanics called for it. (All boss attacks are synced to some element of the music, be it a lead instrument or a rhythmic one)

Base versions represent the bosses on a personal level, while EDM represents the artistry of No Straight Roads(as they are a EDM label) and of course, Rock represents our protagonists’ interpretation.

Below are some examples of when the genre switches happen.

To make these swaps easier(instead of typing out the names of the switches and states over and over again) we made a Blueprint Function Library(BFL) to help handle this change.

 

These are what you’d find in the BFL, the goal was to make it easier for designers to implement on the main level blueprints or the individual blueprints that require them. Streamlining it to something like this:

 

This above just detects the boss's health and swaps the genres according to the amount of health remaining. So once the boss hits <=50% health, it will change the backing to Rock. Once it hits <=25%, it will change all the track genres to Rock. 

 

Challenges Faced

Ultimately, NSR is still an action game where combat sounds such as weapon swishes and impacts need to feel satisfying to the player, yet music, being one of the selling points for the game, is also necessary for player feedback and groove; the music genres explored in the game are often heavily compressed with pumping basslines and kicks, so the challenge for the mix is ensuring the balance between player receiving feedback and feeling the groove at the same time.

Aside from using different side-chain bussing for various SFX, other tricks would be decreasing weapon impact gain gradually as hit chain combos increase. This way, the player feels the initial satisfaction of the first few hits, while getting back into the music groove as they progress with the combo. 

A huge lesson we’ve learned when it comes to rhythm-intensive games is to think beyond gameplay action synchronization and pay attention to non-playable cutscenes for sync as well. 

Zero Time Synchronization

As we were trying to keep everything in a musical structure, there were some areas that were out of control, and that was the timing when players did certain objectives(getting bosses to change phases for example), in addition to that, our transition timings also required us to be more or less fixed so the phases enter and exit seamlessly. So we would force a wait to the nearest transition window. The most obvious example of this is during the level Approach segments; the glass crash has to happen at a certain beat, so sliding into the glass crash has to be timed exactly the same time and same length as the build up of the track(2 bars).



Conclusion

No Straight Roads was a whirlwind of experiences and lessons for our team. Although we’ve worked on various titles, our involvement in this game has been one of  the deepest. We are immensely grateful to the Metronomik team for involving us in every step of the production process and entertaining our audio easter egg suggestions. Working with Metronomik’s programming team to help build audio systems with Wwise integration was an exciting frontier for us. Within Wwise itself, the freedom and autonomy we had with audio implementation truly felt like a playground experience. Moving forward, we hope to continuously improve our audio implementation processes to be increasingly elegant and modular.

Final Thanks

Metronomik  - For believing in us and the work we do.

NSR’s Music Team - For your amazing music, implementation notes and suggestions.

NSR’s VO/Localisation Team - For your vibrant voices, cheerfulness and advocacy for the game.

Fans of NSR - For supporting the game and all the inspiring fan content!

Imba Interactive

Imba Interactive

Imba Interactive provides professional sounding end-to-end audio solutions for interactive media. We are a group of sound designers and composers that specialize in audio for interactive content, and are intent on pushing the limits of audio in interactive media. Beyond asset creation, we aim to augment the interactivity of your product and have in mind to create a gratifying and immersive experience for the users. We are well-known in South-East Asia & Taiwan to be technically competent especially for audio implementation. Communicating well with game designers to push audio implementation boundaries allows us to stand out in the region. Our understanding of the Asian market can also be beneficial to other developers and/or audio studios based outside of Asia. Notable projects: Masquerada: Songs & Shadows by Witching Hour Studios (2016) Devotion by Red Candle Games (2019) No Straight Roads by Metronomik (2020)

 @imbainteractive

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