RETRO FITTING IN – Jesse Harlin (August 2009)

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THE NEWEST TREND IN GAMING is old games; or rather, taking classics from the halcyon days of floppy disks and 8-bit cartridges and bringing them up to date for 21st century audiences. If the opportunity to work on a remake presents itself, take it. It’s a fascinating peek into a formative era of gaming on which many of today’s audio professionals were weaned.

But the process of updating a classic is full of unique challenges. In these instances, companies are paying to remake a game they’ve paid for once before—sometimes more than once before. Knowing some of the pitfalls you’ll face in advance can help save critical time and money.


Step one is the easy part: become an expert on the original game’s audio. Play through the game completely at least once and make detailed notes on all the sound effects, music, and voice, if any exists. Your playthroughs should result in a detailed asset list covering every audio file in the original, whether it needs to be updated, where it occurs in-game, and what kind of update it will get. Note how many sound effects seem to be capable of playing back simultaneously. Note whether the music in the original loops or plays simply as one-shots, and whether changes to this would be a benefit. If the game has successful sequels, find out if they used recurring actors as part of their voice cast.

More likely than not, any game being remade is going to have some form of existing fan community. Tap into fan game FAQs, websites, and playthrough videos on YouTube. Make sure that you know the complete scope of the game and have documented everything, including branching gameplay, alternate endings, and easter eggs which may affect audio.

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 8.32.23 pmTINKER AND TWEAK
» After you know the scope of the project, befriend the game’s engineering team. A remake involves a massive amount of reverse engineering and the engineering crew will be crucial to any successful audio retrofit. If the game is being rebuilt atop the game’s original engine, audio may very well find itself limited to only as many triggers and implementation hooks as initially shipped with the title. Adding new scripts and audio triggers into old code can be like trying to add a wing onto a house of cards. It’s not impossible, but expect some push-back from the engineering team and be prepared to compromise. If a new or hybrid engine is being developed, level designers and engineering staff will be critical to any new implementation support. Additionally, you may need engineering to help with everything from extracting any text scripts intended for dialogue recording to extracting and translating old proprietary music file formats into usable MIDI data.

Audio gets updated in retro games because it sounds bad, and it sounds bad because of technical limitations from an older era of gaming. With those limitations now no longer relevant, there are basically two ways to look at the challenge of updating the game’s original audio content. The first is to recreate new, higher quality versions based upon the sound of the original audio. The second is to create new, higher quality versions based upon the intent of the original audio.

The difference between when to base your changes off of original sound or original intent will only come from hearing the audio in context. For decades, games weren’t able to use digital audio files and relied on tone generators and MIDI sound cards for their playback. In many of these instances, an exact translation
of sounds would be completely inappropriate for today’s audiences. Just because a game from twenty years ago uses a MIDI snare drum every time a door is opened or closed doesn’t mean that a beautiful 24 bit, 96kHz bank of randomized snare samples is the right choice for the new game’s suite of door sounds. In this case, you have an opportunity as a sound designer to really explore the sound of this world in ways that haven’t been heard before. Though working in an existing franchise, there’s a fantastic amount of freedom available.

The same goes for composers. What may have once been written for two square waves and one triangle wave fifteen years ago may now find itself meriting anything from full orchestra to solo voice to a jazz or rock quintet. It may also, however, still find itself comprised mostly of square and triangle waves, though updated with 21st century production techniques and forming the core of a new glitch hop track. The question of context will again decide the direction along with the aesthetic goals of the core design team.

Regardless of the changes made, the primary goal is to always remember that your new work will be meticulously scrutinized alongside the original. Never lose sight of what made the original a classic in the first place. If the original was fun, don’t suck the fun out in an attempt to put your creative stamp all over an already beloved game. Simply enjoy the history lesson and the chance to pay homage to the gaming greats of the not-so- distant past.