Huddled in front of a gently humming screen, Jason Bergman screams at his computer. It screams back.
In this small, clean room, screams and shotgun blasts echo off the walls. In a corner, Bergman, 20, loonyboi in the online world, is creating sounds for Quego, a video game. At his computer, he holds a mouse in one hand and a microphone in the other.
Programmers control how the game acts and reacts. Designers dream up weapons, monsters and levels that are later fleshed out and illustrated by artists. Unlike programmers, designers and artists, the sound creators are less “visible.” Bergman says that it’s tough explaining his job to strangers, adding that “sound is an underappreciated part” of games. Few gamers will notice Quego’s ambient hums and drips. Fewer still will understand the difficulty of generating ambiance and sound effects.
Bergman begins with something unexpected: visualization. He imagines the mood or the character he is making sounds for, trying to visualize the elements of the sound. To get into the sound mindset of a three-inch-tall block of plastic, the protagonist of Quego, Bergman uses his own huge toy collection for “research.”
Bergman’s few expensive toys include a Pentium 100 and a Powerbook. Both are equipped with sound cards, special hardware needed to record and play back sounds. He also uses a small Panasonic Dictaphone for recording. For software, he uses Sound Forge, an advanced $495 sound-editing program from Sonic Foundry.
For sound, he starts with foley work or tone generation. Named after the movie sound pioneer Jack Foley, foley work records real-life sound. The other method, tone generation, uses software to create static noise–the random sounds a radio makes in bad weather.
After recording, Bergman further modifies the sound. Since the sound is digital, it can be changed quickly without sacrificing quality. He may slow down, speed up, reverse, add echo, or apply other effects to create a sound that fits. One time, Bergman says, he made a horrifying scream just by applying random effects to a recording of himself saying the word “test.” For another sound, he transmogrified a Tori Amos violin sample into a gunshot.
Bergman’s screams and shots are a far cry from the beeps and poks of gaming antiquity. When he was 7, his first system was the Atari 2600. He recalls the first video game sound he ever heard, “the Pac-Man death sound. Still one of my favorites. That’s been permanently embedded in my mind.”
At about 13, he became hooked on sound editing when he discovered he could replace the boring beeps of his computer with his own sounds. Pushing one button resulted in a scream of agony. Another sounded like someone being beaten. “One day I’ll be simulating a computer hum,” Bergman says, “and another I’ll be imagining how a three-inch toy figurine screams when killed.”
Simulating toy death isn’t Bergman’s only job. He attends Pace University in New York City and also works at NBC as a Web programmer. Besides maintaining QuakeLab: Multimedia, Bergman also runs his own Web design company.
Bergman e-mailed the head of the Quego project, Mike Gansel, listing his previous sound editing experience. Gansel was happy to add Bergman to the development team, Centuar Entertainment.
Quego is an as yet unreleased game that will use the Quake 3-D technology to create a world of blocky toys. Just one of many future games, Quego will require all new sounds. According to Bergman, sound editing is a worthwhile (and growing) field.
For Jason Bergman, sounds make the game. The 45 minutes to six hours spent in aural alchemy are well worth it because, at least in games, sound dictates reality. Asked about the sound he is working on, Bergman casually replies, “I’d tell you, but I’d have to kill you,” quietly adding, “and record you in doing so.”