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Don’t underestimate sound and dialogue in gaming: Anna Kipnis

Anna Kipnis, a Senior Gameplay Programmer at Double Fine, gave the 18th Indie Tech Talk at NYU Poly earlier this month. "Many people underestimate the importance of sound in their game," she said

Anna Kipnis of Double Fine Productions. Photo by Abby Wilcox.

In games, dialogue is what gives a character character. At least, it’s a powerful tool to do so. This reporter has never been a huge gamer, but the phrases “Once more, into the breach dear friends” and “Baja, baja” have stuck with him for more than a decade now (from 1998’s Baldur’s Gate and 2000’s Sacrifice, respectively).

Anna Kipnis, a Senior Gameplay Programmer at Double Fine, gave the 18th Indie Tech Talk at NYU Poly earlier this month. She appears to agree.

“Many people underestimate the importance of sound in their game,” she said. Her larger message: get dialogue right in your game and a winner is you.

There’s a full video of her talk and the Q&A after below, but here’s some of her takeaways for game makers who want to use dialogue:

  • Getting dialogue into a game is iterative. It may be better to start with dialogue bubbles over your characters’ heads, even if you think you want to use real sound.
  • Treat dialogue as a game mechanic. Just as you will work on combat or movements with sketchy models of characters, record your dialogue in a quick and dirty way using whomever is handy. It will show you what’s working quickly so that when you do it right you only have to do it once.
  • Whether you are using dialogue that is spoken or in text, keep all of it in one giant spreadsheet. Every individual line, including tiny little bits of dialogue (like “ah-ha!” and “hmm”) should go into this master list, which will also indicate its attributes (length, character, priority, etc).
  • If you are using text, go read this piece by Joel Spolsky right now.
  • A master list allows you to give every bit of a dialogue an individual identifier, which makes it easier to change dialogue after it’s gone into your programming (because the dialogue is identified by the ID, not the file, so you can change the file that matches the ID without going and finding all of its instances).
  • If you are using actual sound based dialogue, you need to use audio middleware. It really helps and takes a lot of pressure off programmers. fmod is a middleware program that is free for indie game shops.
  • “For whatever reason, the brain is very good at recognizing a lack of diversity in sound,” Kipnis said. If lines repeat, record five slightly different versions of them. For little emotes (such as wow, uh-huh, hmm and nooooooo!) record lots of versions of them.

At Double Fine, Kipnis was part of making games such as Brutal Legend, Broken Age and Psychonauts (this reporter always liked their old webcomic, too).

Indie Tech Talks are a collaboration between the Game Innovation Lab and Babycastles.

You can see the full talk here. The first 2:20 is especially worthwhile because she shows how they were able to make one character in a game rant continuously without it ever getting stale.

Featured photo by Abby Wilcox.

Companies: Game Innovation Lab / NYU Tandon School of Engineering
Series: Brooklyn

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