Stafford is an award winning sound designer with nearly 18 years’ experience of creating and integrating audio content into video games. His work spans four console generations that can be found in over 70 published titles to date. These include everything from his first title ‘Chill’ a very early snowboarding game to many Football and Lego titles, as well as numerous racing games: Colin McRae Dirt, Forza Motorsport series and Sonic All-stars Racing Transformed. In 2013 Stafford became an independent freelancer. One of the first titles he created audio for was UsTwo Game’s ‘Monument Valley’ on iOS and Android. Stafford’s work on that title earned him the coveted Develop 2014 award for Creative Contribution, Audio. Stafford has also been nominated for the 2015 Develop Creative Outsourcer:Audio Award for his work in Monument Valley ‘Forgotten Shores’
There is also a full audio review by Alyx right here: Monument Valley Game Audio Review
Read the full interview below:
Hi Stafford, thanks for speaking to The Sound Architect about Monument Valley, we’ve been very much looking forward to having you!
Thanks for having me 🙂
Before we discuss Monument Valley, can you tell us how you first began your path into game audio and why?
When I was a kid I had a love of sounds and music, but not in any conventional form, I loved spectrum and C64 music and would go round my mate’s houses to tape music from their games, I also loved sci-fi film sound tracks like The Wrath of Khan and Tron, but I also really liked sound effects and would rewind bits of films to hear them over and over. However it never occurred to me that this was something that people actually did as a real job. (Some of my favorite sounds were in the early Star Trek Movies and I recently got to chat with Alan Howarth who made the sfx, it was awesome getting to ask him how he made some of my favorite sounds)
In my late teens I got into making music with guitars and a Noise Tracker Program on the Atari ST (so not Midi to begin with), I learnt the basics of sampling, sample editing, etc Ultimately I graduated to analogue synths, drum machines etc and by the time I hit Uni I was gigging at various club nights and festivals in South Wales and around the UK. However by the time I finished my degree in Interactive Arts (an early 90’s take on the web, Multimedia etc) I realized that I probably wasn’t going to get a record deal, and certainly didn’t pick up enough conventional multimedia skills to follow the paths my fellow students were embracing (the internet was about to become mainstream, so web design was a sure bet)
Some of us were into video games (a dirty word on my course for some reason) and I was reading the job ads in the back of Edge Magazine and saw developers were after composers and sound designers. Decided it was worth a shot and signed up with an agency, within a few weeks I had an interview at Silicon Dreams and it just so happened they needed someone to write the kind of ‘banging’ techno and trance I was writing and gigging at the time, and landed the job of Lead Musician, composing music and designing sound effects.
In 2003 I joined Codemasters as a pure sound designer, before moving on to join my mates The Audio Guys in 2007, I was with them until 2013 when I became an independent Freelancer. Monument Valley was one of the first projects I picked up!
What were your main musical influences that inspired your work in Monument Valley?
Ken Wong and Manesh Mistry provided me with some fantastic examples to listen to of what they wanted me to achieve with the game’s audio. There was music by folks such as Brian Eno and Tomas Dvorak. I’ve been a huge fan of ambient music myself over the years having listened to the likes of The Irresistible Force (Mixmaster Morris) , very early Aphex Twin, Tangerine Dream, Ry Cooder (Paris Texas) and others. The game’s aesthetic and gameplay design in itself was also a huge inspiration.
Can you name some of the biggest challenges you faced when working on this title?
Probably getting deeper into my artistic creative side. Much of my work over the last 12 years or so since I left Silicon Dreams to join Codemasters has been as a technical sound designer, so a huge amount of my time and energy has been spent thinking about simulation, presentation, mixing, and various sound design challenges. My approach to Monument Valley was very technical to begin with but the game really needed a much more emotive and creative approach. Thanks to some great feedback and brainstorming sessions with UsTwo I was able to grow in confidence that I could create something much more musical for a game again.
If you had to pick one track you are most proud of from Monument Valley, what would it be?
In the original title I think it would either be ‘The Descent’ or ‘The Box’ , in Forgotten Shores definitely ‘N-Sided’, it’s the kind ambient music I’ve really wanted to make for years, I would love to be able to do more music like that for games or other media if the opportunity arose.
What is your favorite piece of equipment you used while working on Monument Valley? (Software or Hardware)
It was a whole mixture of software and hardware really, as the game’s audio evolved so did the way I was creating the sounds, however as I never really got into the software synthesis revolution of the last 15 years or so I’ve had to use what I’m familiar with which is all my old gear, things like the Waldorf Blofeld, Roland Jupiter 6 and JV2080, but it wasn’t enough to just record the performances or sequences from these machines, I’ve discovered that to make the kind of soft ambient music that the game needed I had to apply a lot of post-production, in the end a lot of stuff was played live , one instrument at a time, then layered up, mixed, reversed, processed in different ways to create the sound you hear ingame.
Can you talk us briefly through your creative process when presented with a new game to work on?
It really depends on the game, but typically I find out the all the essential details – the game design, what kind of game it is, what kind of presentation and art style the game is aiming for, typically this informed by the genre of game. Being a technical designer I then tend to think about the audio systems required, and which kind of middleware solution would best serve that, Once the ‘nuts and bolts’ are in place I’ll start sourcing audio material, either through libraries or recordings, designing the sounds and integrating them into the project. An iteration process begins here as well with feedback meetings and reviews; to make sure what I’ve created is suitable for the game and meets the client’s vision. (Although quite often it’s my job to help them think about what that vision might be in the first place!)
Are there any upcoming games you’re particularly excited to play?
I would say it has to be No Man’s Sky for many reasons, the style, the aesthetic, but importantly because it sounds like a space game done in the ‘right way’. Aside from being procedural, the fact that space, the planets, the animals everything are all in one ‘space’ or ‘portal’, and you have whole planets in there. It strikes me that games like Elite and Star Citizen will be far more compartmentalized and not offers as much real freedom as they appear to offer.
The icing on the cake has to be the audio, it sounds like Paul Weir is doing some incredible procedural physical modeling work on the animal voices with Sandy White (of Ant Attack fame), and it sounds amazing based on a recent article where Paul talks about his work, there’s a few audio examples too. That right there is proper next gen game audio (for a truly proper next gen game imo). It’s very inspiring and I can’t wait to hear it all in situ.
How would you describe your job in one sentence?
Intense, filled with challenges but ultimately incredibly rewarding.
What would you say is your biggest accomplishment to date?
Obviously Monument Valley has had a profound impact on its audience, and I’ve never received so much positive feedback, praise and admiration for my work and that really is something very special and I’m really proud of that. It was such an honor to be involved with a uniquely creative game.
As a sound designer involved with projects at ground zero, I know a lot of what has gone into make the games I’ve worked on sound the way they do, so I’m also massively pleased with what we managed to achieve with games like Sonic All-stars Racing Transformed, and Colin Mcrae Dirt. There is so much going on ‘under the hood’ to make the audio sound the way it does in those games.
If you had to pick one game and one album to play/listen to for the rest of your life, what would they be?
I’m not sure the game has been made yet, but a game like GTA5 would be a contender, simply because you have the freedom to continuously make your own fun. The album would have to be a compilation as my tastes are far too eclectic! Maybe PWEI’s cure for Sanity, or Global Chillage by the Irresistible Force…
Questions by Alex Jones
Edited by Sam Hughes
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