Developer Update 2 - Sounds of Arrakis
You can hear it: the rising hiss of a sandworm; a canyon echoing the deep buzz of a low-flying ornithopter; a Coriolis storm murmuring on the horizon.
To capture the feeling of setting foot on Arrakis, there are countless sounds which must be imagined and crafted. Today, we are pleased to show you the work going into the audio of Dune: Awakening. First, we will delve into how we capture the Dune feel through sounds, then delve into the tools and methods we use to create them. After that, we’ll listen to some sounds that stand out, like sandworms, ornithopters, and weapons, and look at the creative process that has led us to where we are now.
It is important to mention that everything discussed here is a work in progress, and subject to change. Our purpose here is to share our process and direction, not the result. As with our previous blog on the art of Arrakis, we have invited a developer to talk about the work they’re producing with their team. Here to guide you through this aural journey is Arild Iversen, Audio Director on Dune: Awakening.
Finding The Voice of Arrakis
Hello everyone, I’m Arild, here to give you a look behind the scenes of the audio in Dune: Awakening. It’s a big topic that is constantly evolving, which makes it all the more exciting. The first question we should answer is: how do we capture the feeling of living on Arrakis? This is our biggest challenge.
We must follow a consistent tone, and that tone must be defined. While the movie by Denis Villeneuve is a great guide (more on that later), we follow three foundational design pillars for our audio: Evoke, Advise, and Flow.
Evoke - This pillar is all about nailing the Dune feeling. It’s strange, yet familiar, nostalgic, yet mystical. The Dune soundscape feels grounded, raw, warm, and mechanical; analogue as opposed to digital. The sounds have texture and feel real. Music is also essential to evoking Arrakis. It’s melancholy and meditative and should deliver a deep sense of history and vast gulfs of time.
Advise - Through this pillar, we guide and inform the player. It's how we let you know where the threat is, or isn’t. The audio must ease the chaos around you, filtering it so that you can prioritize and make the right tactical decisions based on the situation.
Audio supports gameplay both directly and indirectly. It reacts when there’s an immediate event, but it can also build up to a situation. Combat is a great example. We’re exploring a system where there are several threat levels that inform what kind of music and sounds you hear, intensifying as the threat grows.
It may seem simple, but in practice it quickly becomes complicated. How do you define combat? What happens if an ally shoots you, or near you? Or an enemy shoots at you but misses. There are also environmental threats such as dehydration to consider.
Flow – Another priority for us is that in-game SFX must be unobtrusive and designed to support long-term gameplay. Repetitive and continuous sounds blend and fade into the world over time.
Take ornithopters: when you start the engine, the sound will be loud and give a sense of its power, but as you fly, it subtly fades into background noise. The same goes for survival, crafting, or atmospheric sounds. After a time, they fade somewhat, making space for potential external sounds to enter and be heard in the mix. A phrase often heard here is: The sound may be dirty, but the mix must be clean.
The Origin of Sounds
So where do our sounds actually come from and how are they produced? We use a combination of synthesizers, a wide variety of software plugins, real-life recordings known as foley (both in-house and outsourced), and curated pre-recorded sound libraries. Pre-recorded sounds come with a big stipulation: we never lift a sound as is, instead using fragments to be reprocessed into layers that create what should feel like endless variations.
With all this, we develop a language for various sounds such as that of a weapon or a footstep on a sandy pathway. We'll get back to what we mean by a language later.
As our team has grown, so has our capacity to record our own sounds. It's an incredibly fun and rewarding method where you sometimes stumble into the perfect sound by accident. For example, I once spent half a day trying to find the right swishy-swoosh sound for a cinematic but ended up simply recording myself going schhhhiew into a microphone. It took five seconds and the sound worked perfectly. It’s a good reminder of how simple solutions can be the best.
This brings us to the 2021 movie by Denis Villeneuve, which of course plays a huge role in our work. While we do have access to all the sounds from the movie, we are not obliged to use them. The movie’s sound design by Mark Mangini and his crew is nothing short of incredible, and in my humble opinion, perhaps the best sound design one can find in the known universe. Listening to it is both inspirational and a little daunting.
Although Dune is one of the most beloved and influential franchises within sci-fi, it’s a very different IP compared to the likes of Star Wars or Marvel, where the audience has clear expectations of what something should sound like, such as a lightsaber. That sound is set in stone, and a major departure would cause confusion or even outrage. We don’t have the same pressure, but due to our admiration for the film’s sound design, we often look to it for inspiration.
We decided that we would align with the movie for the sounds that we think have already become iconic for the universe, such as Ornithopters, The Voice, or that deadly and intricate little Hunter-Seeker. Yet even where we align with the movie, we have a rule that we recreate every sound ourselves, sometimes reverse engineering what we have from the sound library to truly understand it, put our own spin on it, and most importantly, know how to expand upon it.
Creating a Thing’s Sound Language
The sounds in the movie are designed to work in a linear picture. It’s a language but - if we continue the same metaphor – its vocabulary is only designed to say specific things. Our ornithopters, however, must react immediately to players’ behavior. All the potential transitions and states; speeding up, slowing down, rising, descending, crashing, damaged, flying through a storm or a valley. Our language must be dynamic.
The sound language must account not only for the player’s perspective, but also that of other players. For example, the way the sound of an ornithopter gets somewhat muffled when it flies behind an obstacle. This is why we talk about a sound language. As an open world survival game with multiplayer and a lot of sandbox elements, the design is very systems-based. It’s classic game audio design, but the challenge is to keep the feel grounded and consistent with Dune.
The Story Behind the Sounds
Let’s take a look at how we’re approaching a number of important sounds in the game.
The sandworms are probably the most recognizable element of the Dune universe, so we’re keenly aware of the importance of getting them right. They are the divine symbol of Arrakis, a force of nature and balance. They are no mere monsters. We don’t want the stereotypical dinosaur roar with pig squeals in the middle. No offence to dinosaurs. Or pigs.
In the movies, they have a rhythmic language, and while this approach is fascinating, it does not translate very well to our game, as most situations where the player is close to a sandworm is the instant before being consumed.
For Dune: Awakening’s sandworms, we expanded on the feeling of a force of nature. It should feel like the gaze of the planet itself has fallen upon you. You must feel that weight. We used reactive environmental sounds, like shaking and the hiss of sand.
We studied the film carefully when looking at the ornithopter, and eventually came up with our own variations that have the same feel. It’s the same grounded, insect-like sound, reflecting its dragonfly visual design. As mentioned, our sounds are considerably expanded due to all variations the sound needs, and other aspects of flying which I can’t talk about just yet.
We had a lot of fun with the groundcar, a nimble and fun little vehicle. We tried a number of different sounds for it, even some we didn’t expect to work. At first, we explored the sounds of offroad bikes, golf carts, lawnmower engines, and even insect buzzing. We then realized we needed more weight, so we added extra buzzy analog layers from a synth.
After tinkering with the balance between these sounds, we still weren’t satisfied, and thought we had failed completely. On a whim, we removed the initial bike engine sound, and suddenly, it worked! The additional layers we had packed around that core engine sound held up by themselves. Overall, the vehicles of Dune sound somewhat gritty, analog, and buzzy, but still with the feel of a diesel driven machine.
These massive explosions of spice erupting from the surface are of extreme importance to players. As with the sandworms, we started by looking into more organic sounds, as if the planet is giving in, releasing a groan before the surface breaks and explodes.
These explosions can be seen from huge distances, creating a plume of spice in the sky, so we explored having a delay on the explosion to give a sense of distance and realism. Testing revealed that this didn’t feel great though, so we abandoned the idea. However, you then have the shockwave hit you after a short delay, which does deliver that feeling of distance, scale, and grounded realism.
We’re crafting a shared language for all Holtzman tech, which is found most notably in the various kinds of shields and suspensors. Although they may sound different, they will all be threaded with the “Holtzman sound” to identify it for what it is.
For shields, we’re taking inspiration from the movie, using all these weirdly organic popping sounds. We’re developing our own expanded language for this using synth patches, analog distortion, and maybe a cat.
Weapons have been a very interesting journey, and we’ve just about landed on the kind of language we want to use for them. Ranged weaponry is a major aspect of combat in Dune: Awakening, and there are a variety of weapons that use different technologies.
We’ve veered away from explosive gunpowder-type sounds, instead looking at spring and gas-based sounds that propel darts. The challenge here is in doing so while still giving a strong sense of danger and power. We also want them to sound somewhat exotic. You expect some kind of boom and thump with guns, so we’ve leaned into having a satisfying rhythm to firing and reloading using synths and mechanical clicking and hissing.
This is currently one of the most challenging aspects of the sound design. Players are free to build their own bases almost anywhere they want, piece by piece, meaning they can take pretty much any shape. There are also different materials, causing further complexity and different ways to mute the outside world.
The inside of a base should make you feel safe, while simultaneously sounding interesting and active, and also reacting to the player’s crafting activities. Outside, you have the sound of the wind, storms, and sand. Inside, you should hear all that interacting with your base, sand hitting the walls, muted wind, etc. All of this will depend on how and where you’ve built your base, so the audio design must be dynamic and reactive.
We hope hearing these sound snippets has made you feel, just for a moment, like you were on Arrakis. When everything comes together, that’s our goal. And we hope you found this peek behind the development curtain interesting.
It is an unmitigated privilege to work on Dune. With the novels and the movie’s soundtrack as guides, inspiration is never far. We are in the midst of delving ever deeper into Arrakis in Dune: Awakening, capturing its essence, all while discovering new sounds we hadn’t previously imagined.
What sounds did you enjoy the most? Did you want to hear one that wasn’t showcased? Join the rest of us on the official Discord server to chat about the latest news, and don’t forget to add Dune: Awakening to your Steam wishlist!
Until next time, Sleepers.