Gaming Frequencies: Through the Woods

May 23, 2018 By Austin Trunick
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Through the Woods opens in a secluded cabin on a Norwegian lakeshore. You play as a single mother who has retreated to a forest getaway to focus on her work, which unfortunately means not devoting her fullest attention to her young son, Espen. She wakes up late after a long night of burning the midnight oil to find Espen nowhere in the house. As you search for him, your panic building, you look to the rickety docks downhill to see your boy being paddled away in a boat piloted by mysterious figures.

What starts as a parent’s worst nightmare shifts into something far more surreal. You swim after the kidnappers, losing track of them on the opposing shore – only to find yourself in a place that appears frozen in a strange and tragic time. On this side of the water stands a Viking-era settlement, near-deserted after some unspeakable tragedy. The woods are also home to trolls and other monsters of Scandinavian folklore, each one out to devour you as you follow a trail of clues left behind by your son. As you get closer to discovering Espen’s fate, the settlement’s sad history will also become clearer.

The first thing that hits you about Through the Woods are its cinematic graphics. The woods look almost photographically-realized, with greenery that sways in the breeze and trees that rise far into the sky. As you play, however, the game’s soundscape becomes even more impressive. The natural sounds of the forest were captured in woodlands near Oslo, while the creatures’ disturbing noises were crafted from scratch. If you’re playing with headphones, the effect is even more immersive – and, at times, oppressively creepy.

We don’t want to spoil anyone’s experience with the game – especially as it’s one that can be fully taken in with only a few hours’ commitment – but we do have to give at least one example of the game’s clever sound design. One of the Through the Woods' more sinister monsters can be heard well before it makes itself seen; its strange, animal-like noises will send a nervous gamer spinning in circles, shining their flashlight into the trees and trying to spot the thing before it emerges into the moonlight. When you’re too late, there’s a frightening jump scare and instant death. When the creature’s nowhere to be seen, however, it’s no less unnerving – its noises will return shortly, reminding you that something's out there stalking you just beyond sight.

Through the Woods was first released through Steam in 2016, but console owners were finally given the chance to experience its deeply engaging gameplay when it made its way to Xbox One and PS4 earlier this month. We spoke with Dan Wakefield, co-founder of Antagonist, the independent Norwegian studio behind Through the Woods. In addition to writing the game, Wakefield was its composer and sound designer.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: The end credits mention that the game humbly began as a school project. Can you elaborate?

Dan Wakefield: Yes! The game was originally conceived by a group of students at a game design school in Oslo called NITH as a submission for the game design competition, Dare to be Digital, in Spring 2013. The game got through to the Nordic finals and when it didn’t go further, the team decided to start Antagonist and continue working on the concept. Over the next months the concept of the game developed into something vaguely similar in design to the end result, only smaller in scope. We eventually got funding from the Norwegian government to go full time and develop the game further.  

One of the first things you notice when playing Through the Woods is how immersive it is, and the sounds of the forest (or even your character’s breathing) have as much to do with that as the nice graphics. Can you tell me about recording those elements, and how long it took you to collect them all?

Thank you! In total, I spent around two and a half years working on the game. The first year or so I was freelancing doing a mixture of audio and marketing/social media management, and then I was employed full time to continue the same work within the company. A few months later I also was given the tasks of writer and game designer and became CEO of the studio, so I was pretty busy. I had to fit my audio work between writing and my untrained attempt at community management.

I spent a lot of time in the forest near where I live gathering all kinds of field recordings. I bought a house in Oslo on the outskirts of a gigantic forested area called Østmarka and it didn’t take too long to hike out to a place where traffic noise was not too noticeable. That was where I recorded the majority of the game’s ambiences, water sounds and footsteps.

I mostly had to leave the house around 12am to make sure it was really quiet when I got where I was going. It was pretty fun, walking off into the woods in the middle of the night with a backpack full of gear and a powerful flashlight. 

The feeling goes from peaceful and pastoral to quite ominous as soon as night falls. Not to spoil the game, but parts of Through the Woods deal with supernatural creatures, which obviously you couldn't pull from nature. Can you tell me about your process of creating their noises?

There are several creatures in the game, and creating the audio assets for them was some of the most fun and creatively challenging of all my tasks. I started off doing most of the creature vocals myself and Stian, our character artist came in late in the project to record his version of some of the creatures to give a little more variation.

In terms of my process, I started with simple questions like, how big is this creature, what are its animation characteristics, how does it behave? To give one example which won’t spoil the game too much, there are a couple of giant forest trolls roaming around in the woods. One of them is very tall and thin and only has one eye. You can see some of its organs and bones poking through its skin and it runs with a kind of limp.

So the answer to the first question was obvious; it’s pretty big, which meant I’d probably end up recording the audio and pitching it down to create a deep, powerful sound. So I decided right away to record the audio at a high sample rate with a microphone that has an extended frequency range so I could pitch or slow down the audio without too many artefacts. I ended up recording at 192kHz with a Sennheiser MKH8040, which has an upper frequency range of 50kHz which ended up giving me lots of headroom for manipulation.

The troll was animated with a kind of limp and it’s very thin and starved looking, so I decided its voice would match. When it runs after you, it sounds kind of out of breath and desperate, like if it doesn’t catch you and eat you it’s going to collapse and starve soon after.

And how does it behave? It basically wonders around the environment and if it sees you, it runs after you and it’s very hard to outrun it because of its size. I ended up making this thing groan and wail into the night like it’s just in agony all the time. When it sees you it makes a horrifying scream and races after you, panting and wheezing. I lost my voice and was in a bit of pain after the screaming session, so I think it’s smart to be a little more careful than I was. But I have always been pretty happy with the end result. Apart from pitching it down and some EQ/bass extension, I didn’t process it a huge amount. These days I’d probably use some kind of convolver to add maybe some animal sounds under the voice to make the audio even less human.

So those are some of the questions I was asking myself when I was planning on how to record the creature sounds.      

The score is subtle, and does a lot to help establish the tone when it come in. What were your goals for the game, music-wise?

The music changed a lot from the beginning of the project to the end along with the game’s aesthetic. Early on, the game had some grainy camera filters applied to give a kind of lo-fi look, and the music I made at the beginning of the project followed that look pretty closely. I used a lot of tape saturation, drastic broken speaker style gain/EQ and quiet record crackles to age the audio to fit the grainy look of the game. As development progressed, different art styles came and went and the game became clearer and more lovely to look at, until some of my music didn’t feel quite right any more. I had to go back and remove a lot of processing from the music, and I think it ended up sounding a lot nicer without all the effects.

In terms of style, I wanted the music to have a kind of Nordic feel without feeling clichéd or forced. I had to do a lot of research and listen to a bunch of Scandinavian folk music to try to soak myself in it enough for the influences in my own music to peek through. I didn’t really want to make traditional Norse music, I wanted my compositions to contain Nordic hints and flavours. Sometimes it was with a certain instrument; I bought a three stringed bowed lyre, for example, which was super nice for rough, scratchy drones. Sometimes it was a series of notes that gave me what I needed without having to use instruments typical of the region.

I also wanted to use the music to help separate the lakeside cabin where the game starts, which is in the real world, from the island where the game takes place, a kind of ancient Norse forest trapped in time. So in the start I recorded music with acoustic guitars, pianos and synths, and there are even a couple of my personal songs playing on a radio in the cabin. And when the player leaves the island, the instruments change to things like strings, percussion, woodwinds and musical sound design elements that are hard to pinpoint within a composition. Prepared piano and scraped cymbals and such.      

Out of all of the game's audio, what do you look back on as your biggest challenge to get right?

I would like to say some awesome or complex sound design asset like a creature or a special effect, but in reality the most difficult thing I ended up working on was the dialogue. Company resources were always scarce and we never knew where our next funding would come from. Our salaries were really low, and it was decided at some point that I would record all the dialogue myself to save money.

Due to some extremely bad timing and luck, we lost our first choice and second choice actors for the lead role, and I ended up buying a house right when we really needed to record the dialogue. So we had to find a new actor really fast and I had to record them in my little studio where a lot of my equipment and furniture was already moved out.

This meant the original dialogue recordings were drenched in a terrible, roomy reverb and I had to use a lot of processing to remove it. It meant I literally had to treat every file of the dialogue with individual processes depending on how badly you could hear the room on the recordings. This took so much time and obviously resulted in very inferior quality that took a lot of effort to sound natural in the game.

I ended up re-recording most of the game’s dialogue in my new studio a few months after the game released, and that made a massive difference.

So the seemingly straightforward process of recording the dialogue ended up being the most challenging part for me. I’ve recorded lots of dialogue for games since and it all sounds great, it was just very unlucky timing and we really should have gone to another studio. Sometimes the question ends up being not can you afford to use a dedicated dialogue studio, but can you afford not to. 

Do you have any hints for gamers, where listening closely to the audio might help them better get through the game?

There are a few places where listening closely to or at least being aware of the sound design will help the player survive. A lot of the enemies have music that plays when they’re in the vicinity, and some of the creatures in the forest signal their intent to attack with various vocalizations.

A lot of the audio is simply there for environmental storytelling purposes and to help players become more immersed in the world. If you stray off the track in one area, for example, you can hear the sound of a straining rope. If you look around, you find a person hanging from a tree. And if you wonder further down the path, there’s a document inside an old cabin that tells a story and strongly hints that the writer of the document and the hanging person are one and the same. But the player can decide what they think. 

This doesn’t really have any bearing on the game except to deepen the experience. But I very much hope the majority of players who wander the forest enjoy the game world enough that these little touches are interesting for them and help them to escape the real world for a few hours.   



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