Sounds of dystopia (part. ½)

Crossposted from

The current visuals of Reagan Years are not satisfactory enough to be shared. I am not exactly sure what will be the visual feeling of the game. However I think I’ve made some progress as to identify the kind of soundscape I will use.

Here I would like to present the main directive principles I am using when designing the audio environment of Reagan Years. First of all let’s have a look at how it’s done in some other games.

Videogame tries hard to be the Total Art

From my experience, most videogame designers tend to flesh-out the user experience by establishing an atmospheric coherence between the visuals, the sounds, and the content they are trying to deliver.

An outstanding example of this is Beeswing where the imperfection of acoustic music and hand-drawn visuals really help the game to carry its message on the nature of memories : precious, volatile, fragile, powerful, intimate, etc.

Videogame is a medium that nourishes fantasies about finally achieving the ambition of total art, and it seems this constant research of atmospheric coherence between visuals, sounds and contents is part of this. I am sure it would be worth exploring the limits of this tradition, but given the other ambitions I have for Reagan Years and my doubts on whether I can achieve them, I think I will try not to walk too much on the path of formal experimentation here.

Cold War is a period that quickly bring atmospheric tropes to the mind. Let’s discuss some of them and see why I don’t want to use them in my game.

Looking for my Cold War Feel

The reality my game aims at depicting is bleak, because it is the reality of geopolitical decisions, coming with their load of cynicism, and contributing to the perpetuation of dynamics of brutal dominations both between countries, and within countries. And somewhat I also want the player to establish connections between the state of the world in the 80′s and the state of the world today.

Nostalgia for a golden age

I certainly do not want to give in James-Bond like nostalgic clichés of men wearing elegant suits, driving nice cars, women sitting at the typewriter, and everybody living the last authentic adventures against a clearly identified evil enemy, in a world threatened by cold modernity.

Well, anyway, Reagan Years takes place in the 80′s, so it would definitively be out of place.

The bleak, the gray, and the rusty

Then you have the exact opposite : dystopian universes made of out-dated machinery, rusty buttons, hollow sounds of cringing metal, black-and-white propaganda films, and tense music annoucing the imminent nuclear apocalypse. A depressed-looking, grey-wearing spy walks away from a crime scene.

Look at this (promising but abandoned) East VS West, it looks obscure as hell and even the names of the countries are typewrited on the map. How depressing.

If you follow this trend, you end up with the universe of Paper, please : a bleak gray soviet universe where it seems that color is now illegal. Even the voices of humans have a metallic quality, and the music is of course, a military march.

In games like these, the world already looks regressive and devastated. It’s like you live in the universe of Fallout even without the bomb actually exploding.

Clinical neatness, deadly decisions

Then you have the approach of DEFCON, which favors neatness over decay. It gives you some distance from the horrors of the game you are playing. The interface has a high-tech clinical reality to it. It looks like you are sitting in a heavily equipped (and protected) futuristic secret bunker, where you take decisions causing millions of death (these figures appear as minor info in the game’s UI). This is a nice approach to represent the disconnection of the political power from the consequences of its own actions on the populations of the world. I guess it’s influenced by movies such as Wargames.

In DEFCON, sounds are clinical, muffled, informative. The music is minimalist and menacing.

The music is minimalist and menacing.

Another example of this is Neocolonialism (obvisously influenced by Defcon and making use of the same kind of aesthetics, this time not to depict nuclear war, but economical warfare). Neocolonialism does not only make use of robotic sounds, you can also hear more fleshed-out string melodies, but the dissonances they play with heavily contribute to the depiction of a world where “something is wrong”.

My choices for Reagan Years are influenced, yet different, from those described above. But this is something I need to describe in another article.