Seasoned audio designer Stafford Bawler has been exploring the world of sound for over 17 years, lending his talents to more than 60 published titles including the likes of Colin McRae: Dirt, Forza Motorsport 3, 4 and 5, and Sonic and Sega All-stars Racing Transformed.
Indeed, starting out in the late 90s as Silicon Dreams’ in-house sound guy, Bawler went on to work for Codemasters and The Audio Guys, an audio outsourcing firm set up by former colleagues, before leaving to forge his own path as a freelance designer.
Abandoning the comfort and security of a paid gig for the excitement and freedom offered by freelance work is a dangerous decision, but Bawler seized the opportunity with both hands, quickly finding himself under contract at a little studio called ustwo – you might’ve heard of them.
Stepping out of the frying pan and into the fire, Bawler’s first role as a freelancer was to oversee and create the audio for ustwo’s latest effort, Monument Valley: a gorgeous puzzler that captured the imaginations of players around the world, redefining what mobile gaming could be while turning the ustwo team into industry superstars overnight.
Following the unparalleled success of Monument Valley, Bawler was nominated for a Develop Award at last year’s conference in Brighton, with the composer eventually taking home the prize for creative contribution to audio.
Hypnotised, like the rest of the world, by Bawler’s elegant work, we recently sat down with the man himself to find out where it all began.
Back to the future
“As a kid I loved computer games. I always preferred the games with great sound even though I only had a ZX Spectrum to start with. I’d go to my friend’s houses and tape C64 Sid chip music off the games they were playing. I did the same to the Sega Megadrive once that arrived on the scene,” begins Bawler.
“Then in my late teens I learned how to play the guitar while I listened bands like Hawkwind, who had members listed under enigmatic credits such as ‘Noise Generator’. I also fell in love with FX and strange sounds – I’d already been warping my voice using tape recorders before I picked up the guitar – at the time when dance music was really exploding in the UK. It was great, the whole rave scene was kicking off and I was making my own dance tracks on a noise-tracker using my Atari ST.
“At the same time I was hooking up home keyboards through my guitar pedals to shape my sounds. Inevitably, I followed that up by buying my first analogue synthesisers. So, by the time I hit my degree years I was writing a lot of techno, trance, drum ‘n’ bass, and IDM type stuff. I started gigging at that point, both locally and around the country at free parties, illegal raves, and various club nights.”
Like most students, however, Bawler was unceremoniously spat out of the education system and thrust into a world of jobless uncertainty. Dismayed by his downturn in fortunes and in need of some paid work, Bawler began to follow up any lead, no matter how bizarre.
“Unfortunately, by the time I’d finished my Interactive Art degree I realised I couldn’t really make a living using it, and making matters worse was the fact that record deals were proving elusive,” continued Bawler.
“Until that point I hadn’t seriously considered that what I was doing with music and sound would be a natural fit for working in games. However, I happened to be reading Edge and noticed developers advertising for musicians. I decided to sign up with one of the recruitment agencies and despite being told the work was a rare as hen’s teeth, three weeks later I had my interview at Silicon Dreams.
“Luckily, it turned out that John Hancock – the studio’s Audio Manager – was looking for someone who could nail the kind of dance music styles I was creating and, as they say, the rest is history.
“I initially saw my job at Silicon Dreams as a stepping stone: a way of using my skills to make a living while I gained enough experience to move onto something better – such is the arrogance of youth. Of course, it didn’t take me very long to realise that making sound and music for games, and being paid a salary to do so, was completely awesome.
“I started to experience the ‘magic’ when I heard game running with my audio for the first time. After you’ve spent time designing an audio system on paper, getting the sounds together, and integrating them with the game data by working with the programmer, it really is special when you see the game run and your plans come off. Emergent behaviours through game Physics and AI make that feeling even sweeter.”
One small step
After honing his skills for the better part of 17 years, Bawler decided he wanted to take the plunge and enter the exciting, but unforgiving world of freelance audio. It was a risky move, given the unpredictable, often unreliable nature of freelance work, but Bawler’s leap of faith was rewarded almost instantly.
“Late last year I had decided to become a freelancer and my wife and I were scouring the web to find potential projects and clients. My wife came across the advertisement for the role of a sound designer on ustwo’s website, so I sent them my CV and showreel,” explains Bawler.
“They got in touch and asked me to do an audio test based on an early level from the game, from there we had some Skype calls and I went down to London to meet the team in person. We had some great discussions and it really felt like we were all on the same page.
“Shortly after that, I got the gig. It has been a fantastic opportunity and it was pretty much the first job I got after going freelance.”
Bawler had been hired to work on isometric, paradoxical puzzler Monument Valley, and even though he and the rest of the team had some notion as to how important a game Monument Valley could be, none of them ever imagined that they were about to change the landscape of mobile gaming.
“You know, Monument Valley had a very special feeling to it from the outset. It felt genuinely unique, and it was incredibly exciting to be involved in its creation,” recalls Bawler.
“Of course, we still weren’t prepared for the response it received upon release. It really was amazing, and we were pleased that, aside from the extremely positive reviews, the game seemed to be having a profoundly personal affect on those playing it.
“Folks were writing in saying their kids or grandparents had played it with them, people who don’t normally play games. I’ve even had old school friends get in touch via Facebook and say ‘Hey I saw your name on the credits of this game I’ve been playing! I love it!’”
Becoming the void
Monument Valley’s success, however, wasn’t the product of luck, or pure happenstance. The ustwo team worked tirelessly to ensure that Ida’s story would captivate players from start to finish, and to do that they had to tap into the very essence of the game itself.
“I was initially focused on building the audio hierarchy in Fabric, which is inside Unity, and getting the key triggers and audio elements to work at a functional level. After that we started to move onto the aesthetics and that’s where it got very interesting,” said Bawler.
“I’d been a pure sound designer since leaving Silicon Dreams, so I wasn’t technically composing music for games anymore. I would think about the audio in very physical and functional terms, although there is always a creative capacity in sound design: you have to be inventive and you need to give your sounds character, even in a racing game.
“As such, I initially tackled the puzzles and ambiences as realistic sounds. The rotating objects groaned and creaked, and the ambience had wind in it. After discussions with the team, however, it became apparent that the audio somehow needed to reflect the emotional journey through the monuments. I needed to capture how it felt to be there.
“The real physical sounds distracted the player from those feelings, so I started to make the ambience more abstract, and, as it turns out, music is the ultimate abstract sound.”
Scoring a game, suggests Bawler, is like learning a new language. It takes time to comprehend how everything fits together, learning how each component, each piece of the puzzle slots into place. Of course, once you understand the rules in their entirety, it’s possible to create something truly spectacular.
“I guess my approach to scoring the game really was that of a sound designer, but designing sound using music as my components rather than recordings or created effects. There was a lot of iteration, and the team were very passionate about how certain levels should feel,” explains Bawler.
“We spoke a lot about how the ambience and sounds affected our emotions. It’s very easy when writing ambient music to become morose. You listen to a lot of the albums out there and there’s some pretty dark, gloomy sounding stuff, so it’d be easy to fall into that trap. That’s why we had to find the language of the game by understanding how everything came together and interacted.
“From start to finish that process took about eight to nine weeks, with some of the major musical ambiences coming together in the last few weeks.
“A lot of time was spent iterating and improving the responses of the interactive objects – and revisiting details like Ida, the crows and the UI sounds.”
A monumental challenge
The devil might be in the details but Bawler’s biggest enemy turned out to be himself, with the composer quickly learning that too much freedom can weigh a person down.
“The biggest challenge was learning to not be afraid of getting really artistic and creative with sound. That’s not to say that I’m not creative and artistic, it simply took some time to get used to the amount of freedom I was given,” reveals Bawler.
“Outside of my work on Monument Valley, my other main challenge as a game audio consultant is convincing developers that audio is worth spending time and money on. There are some teams and companies out there who appreciate not only the value that great audio bring to a project, but the work required in order achieving that.
“Sadly there are still a lot of people who are ignorant about sound and music, and think you can just do an ‘audio pass’ on a game, chuck a few sounds in the end and that’s it.
“You also have a lot of people now who think it’s ok to just offer the exposure and experience of working on their games, they don’t realise that in order to get where you are and be able to deliver high quality audio you’ll have spent years of your life improving your craft, investing in the software, equipment, and learning your trade.”
With a disturbing number of studios still failing to realise the importance of sound, what advice does Bawler have for budding composers and audiophiles looking to break into the industry?
“I’d say it’s vital you have some technical understanding of how computers work and more specifically how computer games work,” continues Bawler.
“I think too many people come in from other industries or music tech degrees and don’t understand the unique challenges of the medium, or the problems that Middleware solve – and thus how to use middleware effectively.
“I know there are a tonne of amazing creative tools out there that facilitate a great deal, but you’ll come unstuck if you don’t understand the consequences of things like how much CPU time you’re using, memory footprints and how much audio you’re streaming.
“Good communication is also very important, as creating games is always a team effort. Even when working with small Indie you need to be able to communicate your ideas effectively with programmers, artists, and designers because ultimately you’re all working towards a cohesive whole.”
A new frontier
After winning an award for working on a title that sold over 2 million copies, you might think that Bawler deserves a rest. The man himself, however, probably wouldn’t agree. In fact, he’s already set his sights on new horizons, with the composer looking to set sail upon the high seas of virtual reality as soon as possible.
Coincidentally, that’s exactly what ustwo is planning on doing, and with the studio currently hard at work developing VR title Lands End, who wants to bet that Bawler’s wish might be about to come true?
“I’ll continue to freelance and create audio for all kinds of different games as well as some other projects. I’ll also hopefully be doing a bit more guest lecturing after recent visits to the University of Salford and Bucks New University.
“On top of that I’ve been busy working on the Monument Valley expansion, Forgotten Dreams, as well as Ida’s Red Dream.
“It was fantastic to be back working with the team, trying out new techniques and exploring new ideas such as playing live or sculpting in a multi-track editor as opposed to sequencing, which I used a lot in the first game. I felt that technique in particular breathed more life into the score, giving it a more organic feel.
“In terms of game audio in general though, I’d love to do some VR stuff on the Oculus or Samsung Gear VR using Bin-Aural real time panners. I think immersive mobile gaming is a natural fit for that kind of sound panning technology.”
Thanks to Stafford for his time. The socially inclined amongst you can follow Stafford on Twitter right here, while those of you yet to explore Monument Valley can pick up the title on both iOS and Android.