Sound Design for 4 AM
4 AM is a captivating narrative stealth-puzzle game that chronicles the gripping story of Vita, a courageous young girl who manages to evade a multitude of torments and ruthless experiments inflicted upon her by a tyrannical faction known as Bigot LLP. This harrowing tale unfolds in a society ravaged by a civil war, wherein Bigot LLP has ascended to dominance, fundamentally altering the fabric of the social order through the insidious influence of a profoundly addictive substance called “The Yellow.”
Communicating a story through sound in video games poses a unique set of challenges. Unlike other linear mediums, such as film or literature, video games are non-linear and interactive, and so they require the audio to respond well in an interactive environment. The sound design must strike a delicate balance, enhancing the narrative while also accommodating the player’s agency and immersion. Achieving this balance necessitates careful consideration of various factors, including environmental ambience, character dialogues, music, and sound effects.
The challenge lies in creating a cohesive audio experience that effectively conveys the game’s storyline, evokes emotions, and provides essential cues, all while remaining adaptable to the player’s choices and actions. The interactive nature of games demands the sound design to be dynamic, responsive, and synchronized with the player’s progress, adding an additional layer of complexity to the storytelling process.
Dark Zone wanted sound effects to enhance the gameplay, the immersion and the overall storytelling of the specific actions and overall world.
“We wanted character sounds to always be the main focus, in order to make the rest of the world seem quieter.”
From an auditory point of view, Dark Zone wanted the game to feel dark and tense. One important note on this was that they didn’t want the game to feel like it was a horror-game in any way, so there was a distinct challenge there between making the game feel very tense but not necessarily scary.
We wanted to work with the extremes a bit with this game, meaning that everything was either going to be very subtle or loud depending on the context. The objective was to intensify the stealth gameplay, creating a palpable sense of tension. Player interactions that produce sound become noticeably loud, heightening the suspense as players strive to evade detection by vigilant guards. When sneaking around, we wanted character sounds to always be the main focus, in order to make the rest of the world seem quieter. Interacting with an object should always be loud, to heighten the tension and fear of getting caught by one of the soldiers.
We knew that ambience was going to act as the glue between those extremes. Therefore, we wanted to design the ambience in a way that provided the overall feeling of the world but let specific sounds tell the actual story. Our aim was to ensure that the ambient elements wouldn’t disrupt the seamless flow between crucial components, preventing any disruptions between the extremes.
“We wanted exposure to light to feel dangerous in the world, as they could potentially expose your presence and be employed by both watchtowers and guards.”
We started out by building the overall sound of the world first. This included the ambiences, various environmental sounds and foley for the different characters. The reason we started with this was to establish how the foundation of the world sounded before getting into more specific and potentially unrealistic sounds. This gave us a good base soundscape to always measure and relate all our other sounds to.
Lights are a key part of almost every stealth game and the same holds true for 4 AM. We wanted exposure to lights to feel dangerous in the world, as they could potentially expose your presence and be employed by both watchtowers and guards. The way we communicated this in-game was to have a looped audio file play whenever a light got near you. The closer the light gets to the player the louder the sound, letting the player make decisions based on the sound. The effect is subtle but is something that the player adjusts to over time, raising their effectiveness while sneaking around.
“As Yellow could take many different forms, we designed a base sound that would be used across all forms to ensure that they all sounded coherent and like the same material.”
“The Yellow” was also a key part of the story, so we decided to highlight this element in audio as well. Yellow is a powerful substance that has the ability to heal injuries and diseases, act as fuel for complex machinery, and induce a euphoric high. However, Yellow is highly addictive and strips users of their empathy, which the government uses to their advantage with their soldiers. As Yellow could take many different forms we designed a base sound that would be used across all forms to ensure that they all sounded coherent and like the same material, so that the player would know when Yellow was involved.
Here’s an example of the guards inhaling Yellow:
As mentioned before, we wanted the world to feel dangerous and tense. To convey this feeling in-game, we made every interaction with the world feel loud, or as something that could potentially expose your position as a player. We had the same approach for the character sounds, so that the concept of movement throughout the world itself felt dangerous.
“We began by identifying the specific emotions we wanted to convey: Schizophrenic, Desperate, Cinematic, and Dystopian.”
Trailer Music and Sound Design
We had the delightful opportunity to handle both the music composition and sound design for the game’s trailer. Our goal was to ensure that the trailer exuded the exact atmosphere and audio ambiance we envisioned, which led us to invest additional time and meticulous attention to detail. To achieve this, we began by identifying the specific emotions we wanted to convey: Schizophrenic, Desperate, Cinematic, and Dystopian. With these emotions as our foundation, we devised various creative concepts, each emphasizing different combinations of these four attributes. Through a comprehensive and iterative process, we ultimately crafted the trailer’s music to resonate with the emotions you experience when viewing it.
We used sound effects sparingly to only emphasize very specific points in the trailer. That way we could ensure that there was enough space for both the music and the sound effects, and that they each had their own role to play.
In the end, we ended up with a soundscape that perfectly compliments the game and highlights the dark, tense and disturbing themes. We had a lot of fun creating a unique soundscape, experimenting with different source material and getting into the ‘nitty gritty’ to make sure that the sounds were just right.
A big thank you goes out to the Dark Zone team for a good collaboration and an exciting opportunity!
Words From Client
“We’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with Sonic Minds on both sound effects and our trailer music, and every moment has been an absolute blast! From start to finish, every meeting was a delightful experience. The team not only perfectly grasped our vision but also added their own creative touch, making the collaboration not only enjoyable but also truly inspiring. Our affection for the trailer music has grown to the point where we’re seriously contemplating making it an integral part of our game. This journey has been nothing short of wonderful!”
Tolga Tuzun, Founder, Dark Zone Game Studios