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Soundscapes and Environment Building - Half-Life 2

I've just recently been replaying one of my favourite games of all time, Half-Life 2. You can't deny how influential this game was; from the game play to the masterful story telling, Half-Life 2 changed the game when it came to linear first person shooters. The most inspiring thing about playing this game again is being able to experience the iconic music and sounds again. The weapons, the sounds your enemies make, the environment, the various items you can interact with, even just the sound of your character walking, every sound has influenced the gaming world so much. I wanted to flex my sound design muscles a bit and so I decided that I was going to make a soundscape inspired by the first level of HL2, City 17. It's a city under occupation by the overlords the Combine, and is home to the figure head of the Combine invasion, Dr. Breen.

I wanted to pick a moment in the game to make a soundscape for so that I could build the sounds around a kind of narrative. I wasn't aiming for the soundscape to be very long, but I wanted to make sure it sounded the part. I chose to create a soundscape based on a later part of the game where war as broken out in City 17 due to a rebel uprising. While making the soundscape I kept in mind this scenario and tried to imagine what it would sound like from one of the buildings or from your home.

There's a couple of key aspects of the environment that I wanted to cover when making this soundscape, I wanted to; make it clear that you were in an area that is governed by a higher power, include some key characters and characteristics of the game, and set the tone appropriately for the perspective of the listener in the environment while also keeping true to the feel of the game.


The Environment

I wanted to position the listener in a building much like the ones in the picture above, and to do that I would need environmental sounds that paint a picture of the area around. Considering the scenario and the fact that the fighting has only just started, I pictured that there wouldn't really be anybody out in the streets as such and so it is kind of hard to picture what it sounds like when nothing is going on, especially when it's from the perspective of a room a few stories up. I settled on just trying to capture some ambient outside noises. I initially tried to record the wind and sounds of birds outside with my window open, but when I listened back to the recordings there was too much noise from the street with too many cars driving by, not to mention the wind creeping through the small opening in my window and distorting my mic. So I tried again with the window closed and got some decent results for something that could be considered ambient room noise. I did some heavy EQing on this recording to get rid of anything that might be too high and piercing or too low and rumbly in terms of frequency content, and then added a reverb to make it sound as though it was echoing through the buildings in the city. This worked fairly nicely but I wanted another embellishing sound of wind sort of picking up and blowing through the buildings. The sounds of the previous recording with my window open worked fairly well once I had cut it up into sections where there wasn't any wind distortion and EQed it so that it was mostly low end content with some slight high end. To represent these random gusts of wind I chopped sections of the clip into my timeline and then automated the volume so that it would rise up and then die down again.

Highlighted in Yellow: Clips of wind with automation envelope

I still wanted the sound of birds and without a wind guard for my handheld recorder I wasn't going to be able to record it, but luckily I have some bird sounds from a sound pack I purchased a while ago, making the birds the only thing I haven't recorded myself in this project.

I think it's rather hard to get an ambient sound for a environment that doesn't have anything happening in it, but attention to detail and simplicity is key; if you need the sound of nothing, then just record nothing. So long as there's no digital silence present then it sounds natural.


Setting The Tone

I tried to imagine as best I could what it would be like to not know there was an uprising happening and you were just finding out about it by the sounds going on around you. The first thing I thought in conjunction with my experience with the game was that there would probably be some kind of alarm and announcement stating that the district is in lock down. This is pretty common in the game and therefore a good start point for this small narrative. I took a bit of creative liberty in recreating the alarm sounds and used the sound of my aircon control panel beeping for the alarm. I just recorded the beep it made when I pressed a button on it and then pitched it down a lot to become less of a "beep" and more of an alarm. Then I added some delay and reverb to it so it would sound like it's ringing out through the city, coupled with a low pass filter to make it sound further away from the perspective of the listener. Then the announcement is just me kind of putting on a voice, saying random things like "this district is under lock down" and "please return to your home". In my head it didn't really matter what I was saying because of the way I was going to process it and make it sound like it was coming from a large speaker off in the distance. To achieve this I used an EQ to take out all of the low and high frequencies which gave it a sort of radio frequency spectrum, and then I added some delay to try and recreate the clap back delay between multiple speakers that are a fair distance away from each other. I really muffled the announcement so that it's hard to make out the words intentionally, mostly to hide the fact that what I'm saying is nonsense, but also to create a bit of mystery around what's going on; you know that it's an important and potentially worrying thing because of the alarms but the only words you can really make out are "lock down" and such, creating a bit of panic and confusion.

I think the announcement is really the first part of this that kicks of the narrative, and I think I achieved it pretty well. A friend of mine who is a game designer and fellow lover of the Half-Life series told me that it sounded as though I'd pulled it from the game, and I have to be pretty chuffed about that.


Specific Sounds

I wanted to really tie in some familiar sounds from the game, and for this scenario that meant gunshots that sounded similar to those in the game, and sounds that mirror a particular creature and weapon in the game, the Strider.

Striders are massive tripodal enemies in the game and aside from the unworldly sounds they make, the stomp of their footsteps as they march into battle is part of what makes them so terrifying. I did some research into how the sound of these creatures was made and really only came across a loose threads in the form of a YouTube comment which said that; " These are closely related to the sounds of stridor, the low pitched noise from obstruction of the upper respiratory system. So much creepier considering I heard these in class and instantly recognised where they got such a horrible organic sounding growl from"

So yeah that's pretty terrifying, and it does actually check out when you listen to audio of the condition this person mentions (I'll leave you to look it up on your own time). I decided to ignore this sound as I would probably be a whole weeks worth of work on it's own to try and copy such an iconic sound (maybe another time). But what I did decide on was the stomping sound of them walking into an area. This went alongside some gunfire which suddenly becomes audible near the end of the soundscape. The picture I was painting in my head was a small rebel group supposedly suddenly come across an opposing force and then are approached by a strider. This is why the gunfire starts before the strider stomps into earshot. As for the way I made the sounds, the strider stomps were created from a recording of my microwave door slamming shut and opening, this is the basis of the left to right walking pattern that you can hear. Then it was just a matter of pitching it down to a level that kind of rumbles, then processing it through a compressor to help with that rumble, adding a bit of reverb to give it some impact and space and then panning the sound left to right to represent the strider walking past the conceptual perspective of the listener. The guns are actually the sound of me tapping my fingers on my desk pitched and sped up slightly, I remember the distant gunfire in the game sounding fairly basic and this technique works quite well.

The first few seconds of this video is an example of the kind of distant gunshots you hear in the game;

To sort of round off this scene I created an explosion out of the same clip of me tapping my desk, only very heavily processed with reverb and pitched down so much that one tap sounded like a low boom. I was trying to decide what this boom was going to come from and my initial idea was to have the strider shoot an explosive at the rebels like it might do in the game, however this again would lead back to me copying some iconic sounds and focusing on that rather than building an environment. Then I remembered the shells that enemies would launch at you as a kind of air strike in the game, and realised that it would be perfect to cap off this soundscape. All I needed to accompany the explosion was the sound of this pod falling, with that classic kind of low wizz sound of a bomb falling. I couldn't think of anything that might sound like this in my house and settled for trying to recreate the sound by making noises with my mouth. I was actually able to get a pretty convincing sound out of doing this and only need to low pass filter and pitch down the recording to fit; and it actually worked perfectly.


This soundscape was more or less a trial run to see what I could do with just some sounds from around my house. I am pretty happy with the outcome but had I gotten into a studio where I could have done some more voice acting like screaming and yelling from the rebels I would've been able to create a much more convincing soundscape. I also want to try and recreate some of the iconic sounds from this series, but as I mentioned before, I wanted to concentrate on build a convincing narrative to play out in this kind of environment. So in that regard, I'm very happy with what I have come up with in this small project, and would like to flex my sound design muscles a bit further down the track by trying to recreate some of the sounds I missed.


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