Interview with Emily Ridgway

In your GDC talk you mentioned starting off at Pandemic, and you had offered to simply make them coffee so you could be around game creation. Did you know you wanted to get involved in game audio at that point? If so, did you just start bringing more coffee to the audio meetings, or was it just a bit of serendipity that there was an opening in audio that you were able to step into?

Yes, wanting to get into game audio was the whole point to me hanging around the local studios. I was just curious to see how they did it. I was in my final year of a Bachelor of Music, and there were no game audio courses or anything at that stage. I didn’t know about GANG or anything like that. So the only thing I thought I could do was to just visit game companies for a day to see how they did things. And I guess I didn’t really learn much from doing that either.

But what it did do was let local companies know that I was into games and audio specifically. I wasn’t an established film and tv audio person looking for more income, but rather an audio person who wanted to work games exclusively. And I think the devs and designers were into that. Also, at that time (2003) my home town of Brisbane was becoming the hotspot for game development in Australia.

But after my big proactive push contacting and hanging out at these game companies, about 6 months went by when no one contacted me. I thought “Well that’s it! I gave it a shot and nothing happened. Onto the next thing”. But then, seemingly out of the blue, Pandemic called me asking if I wanted a job as a Jr Sound Designer.

So I guess it was a combination of me being in the right place at the right time waving the right flag.

You obviously had an interest in the process of creating games, the ‘under the hood’ stuff and probably game design interest as well, I’m guessing. You’ve worked in-house and now you have sort of a contractor setup. Do you feel like you are missing out on the ‘behind the scenes’ design stuff, and the synergy that sort of comes from being in-house? Or are you working with people you know well enough that this isn’t an issue?

Oh man, yeah it’s just different being a contractor, and I’m fully contract now. There are positives and negatives. I’m enjoying it at the moment, it’s a nice change to being in-house. Working in-house you sort of get carried away on the roller coaster that is game development. You’re privy to a whole host of good ideas and bad ideas, directions, and gameplay/art/animation changes. All of which change continuously until the last minute. Most of which effect the sound. Good in-house audio makes an art of being flexible as much as they do make good sounds.

I’m finding the contract work I have attracted so far is much more definite, companies know what they want and I just get to focus on making things sound good without the roller-coaster. That’s cool for now. But I do miss the relationships . The impromptu ideas exchange in the kitchen and shop talk over coffee with like minded people are certainly the best things about working in-house for me. And when you’re working in a team that have a deep trust and mutual respect for each other, it’s the best.

You’ve worked with some fabulous game designers (Ken Levine, Tim Schafer) and I’m wondering if you can shed a little bit of light on how you work with them. As opposed to working with a producer, PM or audio director, I’ve found when working/conversing directly with the game designer my job becomes 10 times easier. Were you lucky enough to have that sort of relationship with these guys and what was your working routine like?

That’s a cool question. My experience has been that well known Creative Directors like Tim Schafer and Ken Levine are very busy dudes. Not only do they have everyone on the team seeking their feedback for their art, animation and design when they’re in the office, but they have to be the figurehead for the companies they run. That’s massive.

I did work with Tim Schafer pretty closely on the soundtrack for Brutal Legend, and he was amazing and funny and very good at giving feedback in a way that motivated. But for the other 40,000 sounds that needed to be made, you really just do the best you can and let them listen to it in their own time. For the most part Tim Schafer and Ken Levine trust their teams to do what they do best, and when needed, inspire them to do better.

Working with ground level designers, animators and programmers though, like you say, is really fun. You can just buddy up with someone and make something cool happen.

One of the points that I found fascinating in your GDC talk was the fact that in BIOSHOCK the music cues where sort of left up to chance/random. The point that “just because we can create these interactive music systems, doesn’t mean we always have to” really resonated with me. Especially in a game as special as Bioshock – maybe you could talk about how you came to that decision, how random the music cues were and what sort of magic was involved.

Thanks Dren! Yeah, I guess I wanted to hear someone else say that about interactive music too. We always focus on cool tech, but I think we should be focusing on emotional impact just as much, if not more.

Also, I guess the music cues in Bioshock weren’t completely random per say. On a cue by cue basis the music was linear. But it was the synchronicity of the music with the players specific actions that was random. The same series of string jabs might happen to fall under a wrench swing, or a big daddy coming around a corner, or nothing at all. And in each of these cases, that was what I wanted. In fact some people have even said that the linear music approach lead to heightened unpredictability and suspense because the music sounded like it was supposed to be matching strong action/visual cues, and sometimes it did and sometimes it didn’t. And that ultimately was a very unsettling experience.

When scoring a room, the things I knew were; roughly where the player was going to be when the music played, what they would probably be doing and the surrounding story/emotion we wanted the player to feel at that moment.

That was enough to create a music cue that hit all the right marks. I didn’t see the need for dynamic music in this instance because having the music match exactly what was going on on the screen at all times wasn’t really important. What was important was that people were scared sh**less or sad or a little bit of both during particular moments.

Also letting Garry Schyman compose music without considering dynamic implementation meant he was able to leverage the entire power of traditional composition, which is where his experience lay.

So, yeah, there were many calculated decisions made, and they all served the greater goal of keeping the music emotional and powerful for the player. It just happened to be linear, and people seemed to love it.

I’m sure that the composers here would be curious to know how you go about finding a composer for a project. Obviously some designers have composers they like to work with, but if you were looking for composers, could you share what your process would be?

I just listen to stuff. I listen to everything that’s sent to me. And I listen to stuff that hasn’t been sent too. I’m always on the lookout for interesting music, and not necessarily “video game music”. Over the years I’ve built up a directory of composers and bands I’d like to work with and have unique and cool sounds. Any composers/bands/producers looking to work in games should shoot me an email with a link to their work [email protected]. I might not be able to reply right away but I can’t make you famous if I don’t know you exist. Haha.

Would you like to talk about your new company, Emily Industries, and what led you to taking that path for your career (say, as opposed to going in-house with a company)?

It was actually just a way for me to work for Double Fine remotely from my home country of Australia. And then I got greedy and decided to try to take over the world.

On these very large projects like Brutal Legend and Bioshock, I’m curious how big your team was in creating the audio assets. Obviously there was a lot to manage, and it was all handled wonderfully. What’s your secret?

Hahah “It was all handled wonderfully.” Can you please write that on my linkedIn page? But yes, those games were massive.

My not so secret secret is, I pick my battles carefully and I know when to bail on good ideas. I’m glad I didn’t waste my time, Garry’s time and a programmer’s time with a dynamic music system on Bioshock. Bioshock was mostly about emotive sound design so that’s what we focused on. I’m glad I didn’t bother anyone with occlusion or speed of sound simulations for an open world game about heavy metal.

Brutal Legend was about music, so that’s what I focused on there. Sometimes I have a cool idea, but I am good at letting it go for sake of making other more important stuff sound even better. I’ve learned to work with the creative directors/designers to figure out what the most important things are and make sure I hit them. I don’t try and cover everything at once. And if it turns out everything is important, then I ask for extra hands on deck or more time. It sounds simple but it’s hard to see when you’re in the thick of it, as you probably know. As far as how the work is divided, I tend to work on big vision stuff, sound design and music integration. And the teams I work with usually do what suits their skill set or what they enjoy.

One of my favorite details in the sound design for Brutal Legend is when you are driving/walking around the open world, and come across the band rehearsal area. If you walk around the band practice space and get close to the marshall stacks you can hear that subtle high frequency buzz that an amp makes when it’s on but not in standby. As if the band that was rehearsing was so lazy, not only could they not bother to switch off the amp, but they couldn’t put it in standby either. That little detail just had me laughing out loud, and to me, details like that are one of the elements in great sound design. Could you share any other elements (or examples) of sound design that puts it over the top into really creating a special experience for the player?

Heheh that’s great. I’m glad you liked that. It’s funny. Sometimes I put stuff in thinking it will be really obvious and no one notices it. And also vice versa. I guess I never really know to what degree players are going to experience the audio. I try and add lots of details and secrets in my sound design for the discerning listener.

Ummm other cool stuff… there is lots. The grinding sound of the gyre in the Headbanger Mines in Brutal Legend is actually a metal song slowed down until it sounded like a massive machine turning and churning. I tried to use metal as a basis for a lot of sound design in Brutal to sort of fuse it sub-consciencely into the mind of the player.

The big sword in the middle of Bladehange emits this beacon sound that is actually my Gibson SG routed through an old Korg MS-20 analog synth. The front end piano scroll sounds sounds in Bioshock are actually pulled from the e phrygian pentatonic scale. My music teacher in high school used to call me Emily Phridgway so E Phridgian it was. I’m the voice of wren and reynold in Costume Quest. I had one line. “Blech.” Oh I’m also all the ogres and everything else. That was fun. I didn’t even need to process the ogre vo either. Jk jk 🙂

Lastly, do you have any favorite game playing experiences you’d like to share or let us know what some of your favorite recent games might be?

I’m going to make a really crazy risky statement here and say that Portal 2 is amazing. The dialog and writing is phenomenal. I wanted use Stephan Merchant as voice actor! They totally stole my idea. It’s a good one though. I love the little tiny bits of music coming from objects and how they layer ontop of the ambient music. That’s great. Very creative. And the sound design is very gorgeous. The portal gun fire sound is the best even after making thousands of portals. That’s great sound design.

Interview written/edited by Dren McDonald exclusively for