One of the key elements that help with immersion in a game is the audio. The sound of the world, the voices of the characters, and the music help us create emotional connections with the game. It brings the game to life. Ikonei Island, made by Snowcastle Games, is a game where the audio isn’t just a backdrop to help with emotion but is an active part of the game’s design. It’s a great example of how game audio is evolving and why it’s an amazing tool in a game developer’s toolkit.
Ikonei Island is a spin-off to the well-received RPG Earthlock. While it still has some of the challenge and RPG elements of its predecessor, Ikonei is a multiplayer exploration game where you are trying to heal the island. On your journey, you save and befriend animals, build homesteads, meet various entertaining natives, and fight pirates. Through it all, you get to share your home with your friends and enjoy the island.
We sat down with Théo Nogueira, the Audio Director at Snowcastle to learn how the game audio was developed to create the Ikonei Island experience.
Just to understand your role in the development of Ikonei Island, what do you do as the Audio Director?
Théo: Since we are a very small team, I do everything with regard to audio for Snowcastle. This includes all the sound effects, creating the ambiance effects, voice-over directing, music composing, and implementation. But now we have grown into a team of three, which makes things a little bit easier.
What is your process for creating the soundscape of Ikonei Island?
Théo: Like any project, it starts with coming up with ideas and figuring out exactly what the whole soundscape of the game is going to be like. What kind of sounds will I need, and what are the instruments that I want to work with? You need to create a palette that you can pick from, to create layers of sound.
With Ikonei Island specifically, I was able to create a little bit of variety in terms of music and sounds. This is because we have different creatures and each has its own theme. The themes are quite different from each other but need to fit into the main soundtrack, which is lush and orchestral. I add that variety and uniqueness through rarer instruments, like folk instruments, or older instruments. Or I can even use things like sound created from a piece of wood.
I also need to create this palette since I implement the music myself and create the actual music system, which is not common.
“I wanted to create a system where the music layers and changes based on the biome of the Island.”
We have 5 different biomes. What I chose to do was to assign a different instrument to that Biome. For instance, the main instrument for the beach is a guitar, but in the more snowy regions, it’s a piano. So what happens is that the main backtrack is the same but the instrument on top is what changes once you cross a region. Then, for each region, I create these short sound bites, which we call slicks. There are short melodies that match up to an individual biome or creature.
When I have these various parts for my palette, I then vary how it plays to create a dynamic living soundscape. For the base, we have a main track, which is 6 minutes long. I have split that into 5-6 sections. The system then keeps changing the order in which the sections play, to create a more dynamic sound. In between these sections, the system will plug in the slicks for the region and this adds a lot of variety to how the music evolves.
As we go through early access and get feedback, we made adjustments to the soundscape. For instance, one thing we have done is allow the player to customize the way their music plays back. They can add breaks to the sections now, to get more silence or they can have the music play continuously. It’s an adjustment I can make because I am involved in the design process. And it is a little element that completely changes the experience of the game.
“With Ikonei, we are trying to create a soundscape where the player themselves can adjust their experience.”
With games this is key; it is not just about key signatures of tempos but these fundamental experiential elements.
How do you go about creating these themes and leitmotifs for the various creatures or parts of the island?
Théo: One of the benefits of being part of the development process over being a freelancer is that I know who the characters are, from the very early stages of development. That gives me an idea of their personality which helps me develop the music for them. I start by creating music that feels right, when I imagine the character. Let’s take the Axepecker for example.
The original concept for the Axepecker was for a more serious character. But when we saw the animation, we saw the quirkiness of the character. It made me realize that, okay, I need to change how we’re doing this. So when I designed the sound effects for it, it began to get very funny. This was by accident but it made me realize we had the opportunity to create the comic relief. It drove me to create a track that also represents that, which is now one of my favorite tracks in the game. It’s because I could feel the personality of the character and then made something that would fit that.
If you listen to the track, it’s very different from the rest of the soundtrack. It is very jazzy and fast. To build that, I used a lot of brass instruments, specifically trumpets. At the end of the recording, we got the trumpet player to do some…what we call quacks. This has now become the actual sound effect for the Axepecker. And it all started because of that feeling.
What were the goals for the music for these games? Where did you get inspiration?
Théo: The characters and the art are where I got the majority of my inspiration. Everybody on the team is very passionate, right? So it becomes so easy to be inspired too. It was my first time doing this from the beginning of production and I was able to have an organic creative experience and change the music as we went along. I knew early on that I wanted a blend of orchestral music for Ikonei Island. To blend the classical sound with fantastical bits so that the game sounds and feels imaginative and fun.
“I wanted it to match the childlike wonder the game itself embraces.”
Of course, the goal is that we create something that is immersive. To meet that, the music evolved and changed and grew. I just needed to keep an open mind.
What kind of things do you consider when it comes to sound effects so that it matches that world and the experience you personally want to create for the players? While also matching the designer’s vision?
Théo: It is all about communication and a lot of regular meetings with the game director and design team. We looked at each other’s work and ideas and shared a lot of feedback. Usually, it would start with looking at a piece of animation or art and then collaborating.
What does the character look like? Ohh, they look like a chicken. Then I think about how I need to record a chicken that isn’t really a chicken. It needs to be a sound that feels like a chicken but fits in my soundscape. Just like the soundscape, I create a palette.
Then I make similar adjustments taking into account the ambiance of the biomes. Like a snowier, high-altitude biome will have more wind which will impact the sound. We record all these versions and vary when it plays through the system. These are the details that create believable effects and thus help with immersion.
What are the biggest challenges when creating a soundscape?
Théo: I think it’s considering the different types of players and creating something that all of them will like or preferably something they will love. It’s sometimes really disheartening to watch people play the game and they aren’t using headphones to catch the details. Or worse, they are playing on mute with Spotify playing over the game. It doesn’t mean that they don’t like the music, but I can’t help but wonder, did they even try listening to the work we put in?
“My goal is to create something that people will be more than happy to listen to. Keep them from muting the game.”
How do you craft music that crosses cultural boundaries? After all, you are a Brazilian man, working for a Norwegian studio, creating a game for an international audience. Does that have any impact? Is there anywhere you bring in your cultural sensibilities for a unique sound?
Théo: That is a great question. I started learning classical music when I was 7 to 8 and I did my Bachelors in orchestral conducting. That is my foundation. But I’m also Brazilian, so it’s like Bossa Nova and Brazilian music is in my veins. That rhythm and percussion. So those things are always part of the music I make, somewhere. I’ve always been a big fan of whistling too, so my soundtracks always have some sort of whistle somewhere. For Ikonei Island, you can actually hear it in the song I did with Patty Gurdy. This is how I bring in my background.
But, at the same time, I like to explore new things. For instance, there are so many cool instruments that come from Scandinavia in general. With the first trailer for Ikonei Island, we recorded a Hardanger Fiddle. It’s a typical Norwegian instrument, similar to a violin, but it has a much grittier sound with low tone notes. It’s very, very cool.
What I like about this cultural aspect and taking inspiration from it is that I went from Brazil to the US, and then moved here. I have friends all over the world so I have traveled to many different places. My family now lives in Portugal, so I get a lot of these things, like spices from everywhere. It’s basically my spice basket. I love it because it gives me that little something to spice up anything I create.
I guess a challenge here is to create something that will appeal to every gamer, from the American to the Brazilian. Thanks to international media, we have associations with music. Like Bossa Nova evokes beaches. It may not be correct, but it’s there. How do you take these stereotypical or common associations but still make them unique?
Théo: Fighting this stereotype is the hard one, yes. Of course, sometimes the stereotype is exactly what you need to be as clear as possible. To evoke that feeling. But you need to be aware of cultural clashes as well. For me, it’s really a matter of creating a hybrid soundtrack. So even if I am writing a Bossa Nova track, I replace the brass drums and piano with something different, like a Norwegian fiddle. I just go for something that sounds completely different but still has that style. Then I see if it works together. If I was able to create something new that still feels familiar.
What’s the coolest piece of sound or music that you’ve made for Ikonei? Whether it is a makeshift instrument that you created or whether it’s using instruments that we already know? What slick or piece of sound are you proud of?
Théo: There is a lot, but I think the one that I’m most proud of, is for sure, the Axepecker and the quacks with the trumpet. My junior designer Kris and I had been working with this artist for a while and we simply asked him to go nuts after we were done recording. It’s a hybrid mix of things that created something new. It’s definitely a little bit different than what people would usually expect from a creature.
Another cool thing that we did for Ikonei, which is something that I now want to do with every game, is collaborate. We worked with Patty Gurdy to create a song that actually goes in the game. Thanks to her work, she is now the character, right? The character Captain Rustbristle, the main villain, is her.
As a result, the Piratehog character actually plays the Hurdy Gurdy in the game. It plays a significant part in the mechanics of the game. The character uses the music as a way to drive all of our minions or all of the other pirates to do things that she wants them to do. Eventually, we even impact the design and coloring of the character. The music and the song became a part of the game.
Ikonei Island is currently available as Early Access through Steam. The game is updated regularly with the most recent update being a story update. Check the team out on Youtube, Twitter, Steam, and their website to learn more.