Video game heroine Lara Croft has traveled far since her debut in 1996: from adrenaline-fueled adventures in Tomb Raider: Legend, to enhancement and clarification of the original story in Tomb Raider: Anniversary, to spin-off Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light.

Jack Grillo, lead sound designer at Crystal Dynamics, gave Lab Notes more insight into the role that sound plays in Lara’s origin story that is central to Tomb Raider, a prequel released by Square Enix on March 5. In part 2 of our series, he lets Lab Notes in on the creation of game sound.

Lab Notes: As a storytelling tool, has sound changed in the Tomb Raider series?

Jack Grillo (JG): This Tomb Raider is very different from previous Tomb Raider titles. Some of the differences are the natural changes that come from having different people on the design team.

This game features a new sound design lead, new voice-over [VO] director, new script writer, entirely new voice-over cast, and a new music composer who created new themes and instrumentation. Collectively, the team was focused primarily on making the best game experience possible, rather than studying the strengths and weaknesses of previous Tomb Raider titles.

Changes in the gameplay experience itself also create natural differences between this Tomb Raider and others in the series. The current game favors combat, high-tension traversal, narrative cinematic moments, and jaw-dropping action set-piece events over intricate puzzles.

The new dynamics of combat, for example, created the need for a more robust musical triggering system—allowing us to more directly “score” each moment of the game.

The new enemy behaviors in the game created the need for a comprehensive set of new rules for triggering AI [artificial intelligence] combat voice-over, as well.

Lab Notes: How does mixing sound for a game compare to mixing sound for a film or a television show?

JG: Game sound mixing is completely different from film or TV mixing. The first and most striking difference is the fact that games are rarely afforded dedicated mix time. Every department is scrambling to finish their work up to the very last moment of each deadline, and the concept of postproduction is often quite foreign to game production studios.

Instead, mixing tends to be an ongoing, organic process—each new sound is implemented alongside other, existing sounds—so we thoroughly test each new sound in context before moving on. Months and months of carefully implemented individual sounds eventually turns into the final mix.

This system is far from ideal—as it becomes difficult to create a unified sound design approach, especially if critical art and design elements are open to change. Weather patterns, time of day, surface materials, landmark placement, combat locations, combat pacing, weapon rate of fire, run animation speeds, and even key narrative plot points are examples of game elements that are scrutinized and updated constantly—all of which complicates the sound department’s ability to ensure a consistent and appropriate mix. Add to that the goal of a 10–12 hour single player gameplay experience….

Creatively, game mixing is different from film and TV as well. A good game mix is every bit as focused on the emotional content of each moment, but games also need to feature direct and consistent player feedback: everything from player movement to weapon fire to VO hints.

Most gameplay sequences can be experienced from different perspectives or at a different pace, too, depending on each player’s style of play or skill level. These additional considerations challenge us to put emphasis on specific sounds in ways that are unnecessary for film or TV mixes.

Lab Notes: Is there a point in Tomb Raider where surround sound made a difference?

JG: In my view, the mix of all sound elements in the evening forest sequence of Tomb Raider is especially compelling in multichannel playback systems. The detailed sounds of the wind, leaves, crickets, frogs, and trickling water of the environment play especially well with the player’s movement sounds and breathing.

The organic sounds in this sequence are then combined with the haunting sounds of traditional Japanese music played from an old gramophone player located deep in an old World War II-era bunker. As a whole, this sequence provides the ideal motivation for the player to explore and get lost in the mystery of the island.

How does sound make a difference in the video games you play?