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Sound of Silly

When people ask what I do for a living precisely, I usually say I make sound effects for video games. That’s not the truth though, it’s a just convenient answer and not a lie. I do tech support. And video shooting plus editing. Occasionally script writing. I think I once wrote few lines of code that actually survived to a shipping product. And I make sound effects, too. Sound effects take the most time, so I’ve chosen that as my default answer.

I once made a sound for something that was essentially a thinly veiled bouncing boob joke. My first attempt was a sort of ”sproing” sound. The client did not feel that was what they were after and I got the feedback ”The sound should be more round and organic.” That’s the art school way of saying: ”Not good enough. Try again.” My second, more wobbly, attempt sold the joke.

I once made a sound for something that was essentially a thinly veiled bouncing boob joke.

This and other games I’ve worked on have made me think what makes a sound funny. The example above was more in the realm of slapstick as far as sound design goes. Musical, unrealistic sounds that accentuate the visuals in a (hopefully) funny way. The kind of sounds you hear in kids’ cartoons on a Saturday morning, Chaplin movies and Benny Hill type of humour. Coming up with the actual spot-on sound can occasionally be difficult but the basic template is easy to most of us – just watch a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

But (intentionally) funny sounds exist in games that are not so much slapstick or even comedy games. AirBuccaneers, a somewhat serious vehicular team shooter, had three kinds of sounds that were meant to be funny. One category was just the use of shock: a surprising sound for a surprising mushroom (well it was meant to be both funny and create a bit of a jump scare) or a taunt line that was significantly more vulgar than anything else in the game. I’m sure Steam moderators were thrilled when fans of the game created a group inspired by that gypsy curse turned to taunt.

The second category wasn’t necessarily funny per se, but rather things that made you smile because it was a bit of a surprise yet still exactly the kind of thing that feels just right for the world of the game. Things like Buccaneers raising spirits in Finnish and Vikings in Norse. I hope the kirmukarmu chant at the beginning of each match managed to raise a small smile with some of the players. It did with the developers but that might be just the memory of a fun recording session.

A funny sound is unexpected and not necessary fitting in the more serious sense.

The third funny category in AirBuccaneers was pop culture references – tailored to fit the world, of course. I think most of them didn’t make it to the released game, as they were not really that funny. It’s important to maintain a certain level of criticism towards your own work. Usually games do pop culture referencing via dialogue, like Assassin’s Creed II winking to Super Mario Bros. with the line ”It’s a me, Mario”. The same thing can also be done with just a familiar sound effect or maybe a short musical cue within the game score.

I think that the nugget of wisdom here is surprise. A funny sound is unexpected and not necessary fitting in the more serious sense. This is the thing on which more or less all jokes and humour are founded. No surprise there then.

Johannes Kuipers is a Jack-of-All-Media-Trades at LudoCraft, and also tries to keep the printers and computers working there. He actually had to once find out what does the fox say, without any help from Norwegian talk show hosts.