The Sound Design Of: REDOUT

A short analysis of the sound design of the Anti-Gravity racing game, Redout.

What Is Redout?

Redout is an Anti-Gravity Racer from 34Big Things, a company from Turin, Italy. My first experience with AG Racers was playing Extreme-G on the Nintendo 64. Every race felt like riding a futuristic roller coaster at a breakneck pace. Later on, I became re-acquainted to the genre as an adult with WipeoutHD. I spent a lot of time with Wipeout and really loved the imagination that went in to the design of the racecourses. When I discovered Redout I felt as if I reconnected with an old friend I had nearly forgotten about. The words to describe what it’s like roaring down a track at over 1000kmph, on a track that could only exist in the dreams of the bravest hyper-coaster architects, are hard to find. “Fun” doesn’t do the game enough justice.

While Redout does a lot of things incredibly well – namely, racing fast – it’s sound design unfortunately falls a bit short. With just a few small improvements, the developers can leverage the sound design of the game to truly complete the experience.

What Redout’s Sound Design Does Well:

It carries the aesthetic.

Redout presents a very stylized visual aesthetic. The ship models are fairly low-poly, with lots of angles. Bright holograms guide the racers along each twisted inversion. The colorful scenery would be absolutely stunning if it weren’t screaming past at hundreds of kilometers an hour. The sound design similarly stylizes itself with lots of synthetic sounds that have as many hard edges as the polygons. The pounding EDM music supports the visuals flawlessly. The announcer has a robotic effect to her voice. When racers collide, you’ll hear the energy powering these beasts arc from one craft to the other, as if neither machine can contain it’s own power. Everything sounds exactly like you would expect it to sound when you hear the phrase “Solar Redout Racing League.” Nothing sounds like it does not belong, and ultimately, this is the aim of every successful design.

But I also have some criticisms:

First, it needs to sell the space…

For one, the game’s environments feel unfinished. When you watch a movie or play a game, it’s important to hear the natural, diagetic sources of a scene even if they aren’t in front of you, on-camera. Our ears detect sounds from all around us – not only what is directly in front. It’s important that the audience hears the sounds of the space – even if it’s just a few accents. Birds chirping in the forests, traffic outside a restaurant, or an air conditioner in a characters home: these subtle, yet important cues, sell the scene, and I want Redout to sell the scene too.

“Selling” the scene can extend to all aspects of the sound design. I would particularly like the pre-race introductions to show off the world it’s more “natural” state, before the racers rip through the calm. One example for enlivening a space comes from the game Rocket League’s “Urban Central” map. In “Urban Central” various (mostly indiscernible) announcements are audible through the PA system. This is a small but incredibly effective way of adding texture to an otherwise fairly-empty soundscape. There are specific areas in Redout where I would like to see improvement. In particular, Abruzzo’s underwater stretches and Alaska’s ice caverns could feature more prominent reverberations and auxillary sound effects to further sell the environment.

…and then we need to hear that space.

My other major criticism is that so much of the game is inaudible underneath the soundtrack. To a great degree, it seems as though 34BigThings didn’t anticipate people turning off the music. Being mixed against the music, everything sounds fairly quiet when the music is turned off. This is perhaps related to my initial criticism of how many of the sound design aspects feel like they haven’t been fully fleshed out. A smaller studio might not have the budget for endless sound design iteration; music has long been the go-to plastering for filling in the gaps.

Yet, while the marquee sounds like racers zipping through a speed boost are certainly present, the sound of any racing game is the sound of the engines. And the engines are conspicuously missing. They’re barely present, almost indistinguishable from the wind noise. Even though the higher-tiered crafts do have stronger engines, plenty of the remaining sound effects are quiet as well. For example, the impacts between racers and their surroundings are dull. What look like teeth-shattering grinds against the floor sound tinny and insignificant. The sound of racers slamming against one another only barely cuts through the mix. These need to be addressed, and these sounds need to be audible.

How I Would Improve the sound design of the game:

Address the lack of variety.

Beyond addressing the criticisms above, adding some variety could go a long way in improving the sound design of Redout. For one, the racer classes all sound fairly similar to one another, despite their unique silhouettes. The Koeniggswerth ships have plasma streaking down their chassis. The Veloce model has three massive exhaust ports on a wide, flat plane. The Suhlas resemble podracers from Star Wars, and the ESA-AGR ships are angular, waspy little darts. The Conquerer crafts remind me of old school muscle cars, and so forth. I mean…look at them!

These three ships couldn’t be more distinct from one another. From Left to Right, the Suhla’s Qareen, Koeniggswerth’s Yggdrasil, and the ESA-AGR’s Dragoon.

But…overall, the sound design doesn’t seem to reflect the amount of visual variety – at least for the ships I’ve unlocked thus far. By the same token, a lot of collisions feel very similar to one another. The glitch-effects as you shift up and down sound great, but there don’t seem to be enough of them to make any one particular craft sound unique, either.

And close the feedback loops…

The feedback loop is the constant recycling of information in a system. It exists in any situation where information is presented and a decision is made, resulting in new information to be acted upon. When a player cannot make the connection between a piece of information being presented and what to do with that information, a feedback “gap” is created. When these gaps appear, all of the great UI, visual, and sound design elements in the world will go to waste because the player won’t be able to make use of the information. There are several systems in Redout where these gaps appear, and I believe audio can be used to solve them.

…in presenting the player state.

One of the primary functions of feedback is to inform the player of their current state, usually using interface icons and meters. In Redout, player-state information is primarily relayed via the Heads-Up Display. However, number readouts alone give no information about the game state if the player isn’t looking at them. In Redout, a racer usually cannot afford to take their eyes off the road, so the HUD is often ineffective.

When the ships energy level fills completely, a nice little sound effect plays. Upon hearing it, I know I can activate my power-up, or use a boost to try and jockey for position. This is a well-managed feedback system. The “Hull Integrity” system, arguably the most critical piece of information a player must manage, however, is not. There are plenty of visual effects, but in a normal race, the only associated sound effect with Health is a “Hull Integrity at 10 percent” voice-over. By the time I’ve reached that point, one more impact might kill me. I never really get a chance to try and race more conservatively.

In one game mode, Survival, you’re constantly being pinged by “Hull Integrity” messages at various percentages, and it works better…but an associated sound effect – an “alarm” or shattering sound to go along with the shattered-glass visual effects, might convey that information more naturally than an omnscient voice-over simply reading off numbers. Additionally, when my ship is fully repaired, that is a signal that I can try to play more aggressively. Having something letting me know I’m near or at full health (like the Energy “topped off” sound effect) would be an excellent addition as well.

..in Power-ups.

Another feedback issue is that many of the power-ups have no appreciable sound effect that sharply cuts through the mix. At a bare minimum, I need to be able to connect to sound of my power-ups. Beyond that, I need to hear the power-ups of my rivals, to make decisions about how to react. In this system, the feedback loop for power-ups in Redout is not giving me enough information. If I can’t hear what the rival racers are doing, I can’t react to them.

One could contrast this to the power-ups feedback loops in the Mario Kart racing games. In Mario Kart, the Spiky Blue Shell power-up isn’t exciting simply because it blows up the player in the lead; the Shell is exciting because the warning siren lets every racer know that the conditions (and potentially, standings) of the race are changing right now. Likewise, you can hear a player with the invincibility star racing up behind you because you can hear the music from a distance. A good Mario Kart player can consistently react to these cues in order to evade them. But, it would be impossible to react without the feedback from the game to tell players that they need to take action. In that respect, Mario Kart‘s power-ups don’t just give great feedback, they actively create suspense.

This stands in stark contrast to Redout, where players get little, if any chance, to dodge the incoming threats. It bears repeating that high-level players literally devour information about their surroundings in order to make decisions. Without good feedback from the audio system, it’s impossible to know what to do until it’s too late. The end result is that an engaging user experience becomes more difficult to achieve.

…and in the redout/blackout system.

When a player catches big air during a jump, the bass fades out of the mix, and wind rushes in to take its place. That’s a great example of feedback. You can see your craft in the air, and the sound design reflects that. It all works together as one large cue that the player will have to take “being airborne” into account when steering the craft. This system is applicable to the redout/blackout system. The system encourages players to control the pitch of the ship in order to avoid taking on excessive g-forces. If they fail to do so, the screen will redden or blacken in response. It provides a fun extra layer of complexity to the game, but it has the potential to become far more interesting.

The Redout system, unsurprisingly, turns the screen red. But it could probably do more than just be a cool visual effect, in my opinion.

As it stands, the redout/blackout system does not affect the players speed, but it does visually obscure the track. It’s only a minor visual effect right now, sinceĀ  it only affects visibility. If a player memorizes the track, they can safely ignore the blackout, because the layout of the track never changes. But if the redouts/blackouts were to obfuscate the player’s sense of hearing, it threatens their ability to react to other racers. Now, the risk of ignoring a redout increases, because the redout feedback loop would now affect other feedback loops.

The interplay of different systems among one another helps creates a compelling experience and is a very simple way in which the audio system can develop and improve upon an already-existing system.

Final Thoughts:

Overall, Redout is a fantastic game and I love its stylish sense of speed. But there are a few things holding it back from becoming the kind of cult classic that Wipeout, Extreme-G, or F-Zero are. The potential and room for improvement is there to take a good game and catapult it into greatness. At the end of the day, the ultimate aim of any decent sound design is to pull together each component of the games universe and make it sound believable. But a great design needs to be able to connect the player to the world, their environment, and their craft. If it can’t, all the really cool swooshes and swirls and techno-gadgetry in the world will go to waste when a player just simply isn’t engaged.

With all that said it bears repeating: The game is still incredibly fun and fans of the AG genre will surely still find it enjoyable.

It is available for purchase here on Steam.

The official website is here at http://34bigthings.com.