Fresh from the Steam Early Access release of throwback RPG Tangledeep, chief programmer and sound designer Andrew Aversa discusses his role in the rogue-like dungeon crawler and the role of retro game sound effects.
On Your Impact Gameworks site, you mention that you ‘draw from the beautiful art and sound of classic games’. I’m interested in how you define classic games – I think we can all recognise it when we hear it, but what is it that sets this tone apart for you?
When it comes to audio, particularly when we’re talking about the high-quality RPGs of the SNES, there were a few defining elements. Most notably, the soundtracks were driven by very melodic themes. On 8-bit systems like the NES and Game Boy, creating melodic themes was essential due to the limitations of the chips. But on the SNES, there were more channels to work with, so creating these lush melodies was more of an artistic choice that I really appreciate.
Games like Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy 4-6, and Chrono Trigger all had incredible soundtracks where nearly every song had a memorable melody. Tangledeep’s soundtrack is heavily inspired by games like these. The major difference is that the tracks I’m writing are longer, so I don’t need to pack quite so much into just 60-90 seconds.
I also have to mention the instruments used in these classic games. The SNES could use real audio samples, as opposed to purely synthesized tones, but it had incredibly limited memory. You could have a guitar sample, but it had to fit in a few kilobytes. In the modern music software world, a detailed guitar sample could be 100,000x that size! The result of using such tiny, compressed samples is a distinct ‘sound’ on many wonderful SNES games. It’s clearly not realistic, but it has a certain charm. Using custom software I created, I’m emulating that sound directly.
Sound effects are the other crucial element. Again, lacking significant audio memory, the SNES often had to use extremely short FX. These were usually created with extremely simple synthesized tones or lo-fi recordings.I think it’s fascinating that we can hear a little burst of noise, shaped in a particular way, and – combined with the visual effects in the game – understand that is a sword slash, a burst of lightning, or a fireball. I’ve been crafting the FX of Tangledeep primarily using custom software, and the same sort of synth-driven approach used by these games to evoke a charming retro feel.
Yeah, it’s amazing how we can automatically associate a sound with an action and even if the two by themselves are disparate they seem to merge when put together. How much of that understanding of an action comes from the ‘little burst of noise’ and how much comes from a visual effect, do you think? And how far do you think this extends to general video game sound design?
With 8 and 16-bit games, having the visual context there is at least 50% of it. I’ve combed through the SFX for games like FF6 and even FF7 in isolation, and for a good chunk of them it’s ambiguous what they are supposed to be. A fireball? An earthquake? A meteor impact? But of course, they’re not supposed to be heard in isolation.
I think once games started using authentic foley-style sound design – that is, recording things in the real world to precisely emulate the expected sounds – this really wasn’t an issue anymore. Still, I think there is a lot of charm in those lo-fi effects.
So if my research is correct, you founded Impact Soundworks in 2008, and then Gameworks in 2016. How do you think your background in video game music software and composition has influenced your game design and programming?
Yes, it would seem that I was a musician first, then a music software developer, and then a game developer. But the truth is that I always wanted to create games, for as long as I can remember. I cobbled together some really simple games in QBasic as a kid, as well as some text-based “battle bots” in chat rooms on IRC. These were far more simple and crude than Tangledeep, but it was absolutely an early love of mine. I became interested in music not long after, in high school, and it wasn’t until 10+ years later that I came back to games.
To answer the original question though, having experience with creating music software was really helpful in understanding some of the logistics in managing large projects. There are some overlaps in the programming concepts used too, though games are far more complicated. My music career also gave me the initial funds I needed to commission great artwork and spend lots of time working on this (almost full-time, now.)
Can you tell us some more about these overlaps in programming concepts? Which skills transfer between the two disciplines?
The virtual instruments I’ve created for Impact Soundworks use a special kind of scripting called “KSP”. Compared to typical programming languages like C++, Python, or Java, KSP is quite simple and gives you only very limited tools. However, you still have to use math and logic to achieve the desired result.
For example, let’s say you have a virtual guitar instrument that has thousands of real guitar recordings, all sorts of playing techniques. The user presses a note on their keyboard; what happens? You create a set of logical rules to determine which recorded sample to play back, using functions and variables to ‘model’ the behavior of a real guitarist.
That sort of thinking translates directly into creating gameplay logic for a game like Tangledeep. When the player attacks a monster, we think of all the factors involved – equipment, stats, skills, status effects – and use a set of rules to calculate the final result. Even though the programming language is different, the thinking is the same.
That’s great! Finally, can you give us some more information on Tangledeep?
Sure! I could talk about it in as much detail as you want, but here’s the simple overview. Tangledeep is a turn-based, dungeon crawling RPG inspired by both classic roguelikes and the finest 16-bit RPGs. The aesthetic is modeled after games like Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, and Lufia 2, with beautiful sprites, colors, and effects. Of course, everything is expanded and upscaled to HD for the best possible experience on modern systems: PC, OSX, Linux, and next year, Switch!
The core of the game revolves around exploring a mysterious labyrinth – Tangledeep – that is full of strange creatures and wondrous artefacts. Each time you play, the dungeon changes completely, so it’s never the same adventure twice. There’s a job system similar to games like Final Fantasy Tactics with lots of unique play styles and abilities to pick from. Plus, while the intended rogue-like game mode does have permadeath, you can build up a magic tree grove and monster corral that persists even if you die. Or play Adventure mode, where there is no permadeath!
Besides writing just about all the game code and doing all the design work, I’m also writing the music and creating the sound effects to capture that authentic 16-bit style. I don’t have any skill in visual art though, so the sprites are drawn by three extremely talented artists. We were also recently joined by another programmer, my friend Jim Shepard, who is working primarily on the Switch port.