Progress: When audio replaces visuals
Published 2 years ago
Designing feedback with sound
An in-depth showcase on how a visually simple game uses sound and music to create images and settings in the heads of the listener and how audio is used to point you in the right direction.
About our game and Feedback
Progress is a minimalistic puzzle game with 100 levels meant to dazzle you with seemingly simplistic riddles and clues. This blogpost will cover what we think is an interesting aspect of our game with regards to gameplay and feel; the sound and music.
See, the only use of graphics is a line acting as a progress bar, accompanied by a few words that can be found on the screen to give titles and hints, and this never changes during the game. The words and how the line behaves is an indication on how you must interact with the iOS device. Since the visual part of the game was this simplistic, we saw an opportunity to use sound as a vital element to place each puzzle in a context creating a setting and hinting towards how the player should think about a solution.
Our motto was feedback on everything; everything relevant to the player interaction and puzzle solution that is. We do this in 2 different ways:
  1. Progress bar: the progress bar would move across the screen as an indication that you are  doing things correctly - and back if you are not.
  2. Audio: sound in this game is used to both give feedback to your actions and to put the puzzle in a context or setting that makes it easier to understand.
Audio Feedback
For the audio side, we spent many hours tweaking and fine tuning our sounds and how they are implemented. Last count we had 1150 sounds or so in our game, around 11 unique sounds averaged per level and there are quite a few subtle and elegant ways we have implemented it to give satisfying feedback.
A good example is the level “Champagne” The interaction is to shake your tablet, which you do while the bar is loading and the level is complete. The text is simply «Champagne» and the progress bar moves as long as you are shaking. The sound works in 4 stages:
  • a loop of a fizzy drink: thinking of champagne, we wanted to reflect that a champagne bottle can shoot out the cork if you shake it, so the basic ambience is bubbly
  • the second sound most people hear is when you move the device slowly: there are sounds of liquid sloshing gently around in a closed bottle, making the association of holding the actual champagne bottle
  • then there is the feedback on the actual shake which is just a shaking sound that is affected by speed and intensity of shakes with pitch and volume automation
  • the final feedback sound is the complete sound: the cork shoots off and lands on the floor while our «progress» sound plays at the same time, telling the player that the puzzle is solved
There is a similar hint on 2 levels that work together. One is called “Wind-up” and for each slight movement your tablet makes, a gear clicking sound is played. Once you turn it in the correct direction you hear a series of them as well as the bar moving across the screen. At around 80 % of the progress bar, the music gets turned up quite a lot and gets distorted by the time you get to the next level which is titled “Too much, wind back”.
So the transition with the fade-in of the music and having it distort makes the next level feel as if you just turned up the volume of a giant knob, yet must turn it back a bit where once you do reduces the music to normal volume and removes the distortion.
Default feedback
There is a specific chord progression in Progress that plays once you are starting to complete each level which then ascends into a triumphant chord as you solve it! It does not play in every level, depending on context and if there is a good reason we need something else to have focus in the audio, but it´s made to cut through noise so that should you play our game, you will have a good chance of hearing the feedback of you doing something right. It also conditions you to feel good about completing a level as you associate it with satisfaction after you have played a few levels.
We have different contexts in the sounds for puzzles that resemble each other. An early level called “Learn to walk” requires you to use two fingers to “walk” across the device to the sound of footsteps. Later when you get to the level “Walk on ceiling”, you have learnt that the device knows if it’s upside down. So you need to place the screen facing down, and then walk on it with your fingers. Here each step will sound like a suction cup making it feel like you are now walking on the ceiling. We have an alternate little one with a horse on the ceiling that ends bad for the horse (hint: it falls off).
Using mic input
We have a level called “LALALALA” which at the start of the level measures the average sound level that is coming in through the microphone of your device. It then waits for you to surpass that with singing or talking. So while you sing your heart out, you get closer to finishing the level. Later in the game you come to an answering machine and it plays back what you recorded back to you. Using player’s audio input for later showing it back into the game gives them a laugh and enjoyment.
Creating stories:
So quite a bit of the audio for this game is about creating context and telling small stories between the levels.
The longest chain of a story we have is a true pirates tale where audio is crucial in setting the mood. In the first level called “Look birds”, we hear seagulls fade up as we turn the ipad upwards to look, and as it is completed, we fade in ocean waves ambience. We are now at the level “On a boat” and you must wag the device with the waves, making small creak sounds of the boat as you are rolling on the waves. On complete we play a ship bell to give a signal on completion.
We then take you diving after a map in the next level called “Find the hidden spot”.
When you press the screen with your finger, there is a splash and the ocean ambience goes away, leaving only underwater ambience and a sonar ping that gets stronger the closer you get to the hidden location on the screen. You find the spot and find the map.
The next level is called “Run” and resembles “Learn to Walk” where you get to shore and must run towards the treasure spot with your fingers. Here we have 2-3 ambiences fading into one another as you run: heavy breathing since you are exerting yourself, as well as each step having its own sound that changes from running in shallow water, sand and grass. The ambience of the levels starts in the ocean and ends up in the tropical forest. This level is also by far the most cluttered with audio files, featuring 3 footstep sets with variations (around 30 single files), 3 ambiences and breathing as you run.
The very level in our story sequence is the search for treasure “X marks the spot”.  As the level starts, we are now in a jungle. Every time you interact with the screen on the wrong spot, your fellow pirates are muttering unconstrained as you find nothing in the dirt. Pressing the X symbol will play the sound of a shovel hitting something hard and the pirates get excited. When you are holding down x, the digging starts and pirates get more and more happy until you dig out the chest, then everyone else erupts in a cheer, completing the level!
To conclude
I hope these examples can give you some ideas on how to connect your game design and audio closer together, as well as give you inspiration to do something cool!
As a sound designer/implementer, it has been one of my most challenging and fun projects to breathe life into this game. I think the lack of graphics gave the audio huge amounts of room to play around with and exploring how sound could work tightly together with the player input.
Martin Mathiesen