“Blanket Fort Chats” is a weekly column featuring women and nonbinary game makers talking about the craft of making games. In this week’s post, we feature Jocelyn Reyes, a sound designer most recently known for crafting the soundscapes of Overland—a new 3D survival tactics game where players guide an evolving cast of survivors on a road trip through a ruined continent.
Miss N: Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
Jocelyn: I have always been interested in doing something with audio. I started playing instruments at an early age. Once I didn’t want to do that anymore, I became interested in sound design. It started off as kind of a hobby, then something I wanted to take more seriously.
Miss N: What’s your earliest memory of playing games?
Jocelyn: I remember playing Sonic 2 with my cousin when we were like five or six? We would hang out in our undies eating peanut butter bread until it was bedtime. But I think it was mostly him playing and me watching! I played some Sega Genesis games growing up, but was never really invested. Always on and off. I always thought of video games as something really cool that I should do more of, but was doing other things instead.
Miss N: What’s your creative process like as a sound designer?
Jocelyn: I’m still figuring it out. Not sure that’s something that is ever the same, but for the most part, I just talk to whoever I’m working with to try and figure out what they picture the game feeling/looking/playing like, and then try to meet those expectations aurally. I also try to play the game as soon as I can. This helps shape my ideas and I know why they referenced certain things. I ask for examples of things they would compare the game being like or games they enjoyed listening to. I always want examples of things they’ve played or watched or listened to. References are always helpful. Then I sketch something up and send it to them for feedback. It’s a lot of back and forth.
Miss N: Are there things inherent within the medium of games that change how you compose music or design sound?
Jocelyn: Well, I’ve only ever worked in games. Other than that, I’ve made things for the fun of it. Some practicing with short animated stuff, but not professionally. Even in practicing and making sounds for linear media, there are pretty big differences. For one, in video, you make it once and it’s always the same. With interactive media, something is always different! The player does something you didn’t expect or they have expectations that weren’t met—something that maybe the visuals did, but the sound didn’t or vice versa.
You have to always be aware of the things that the game is trying to tell the player and highlight those. Sometimes that changes how you want to arrange the music. Most everything is tied to an action. It has to be dynamic. If things are happening on screen and it’s not happening aurally, most likely the player is disappointed or less invested because you didn’t respond correctly. Or the other way around.
For example, I was playing a game that had really good music, but it was way too emotional and in-your-face too early. I wasn’t emotionally invested in the characters yet, and they were playing really intense music. It felt like it was pushing me into something I wasn’t ready for. In games, sound has to be one with all of the game. The sound moves wherever the game does at the same time. So, yeah, it can definitely shift things around! I just try to stick with the style and create something that fits any dynamic moment.
I think limitations can come mostly when the sound designer is involved really late in the project. The earlier we become part of the team, the more we can experiment and discuss ideas.
Miss N: Seeing your demo reel, we couldn’t help but fall in love with the work you are doing for Overland. It’s quite atmospheric and mysterious. What drew you to the project?
Jocelyn: Aw, thanks! I think the first thing that made me really want to work on Overland was the fact that, if I remember correctly, they said they wanted “music” (quotes and all). Something more atmospheric and weird. That’s right up my alley!
They also had The Thing theme song as their placeholder song. The whole ominous/lonely/weird/alien feel really struck a chord. Oh, and also the concept art. Heather’s the bomb.
Miss N: Can you tell us how the sound and music developed?
Jocelyn: I’m still working on it, actually. There’s been a lot of iteration. I was really stuck for a long time on what exactly I wanted to do. I guess sometimes I still am! From early on, I started recording things with contact mics and hydrophones, trying to manipulate sounds of objects and instruments to see what would happen. I wanted to extract the musical qualities that are inherent in all sounds and put them together with more traditionally musical-sounding things.
There are infinite possibilities! But there’s always something that fits a lot better than all the crap you end up making. And sometimes throwing stuff away is really hard! I ended up just getting down to the basics. Like, okay, how should this biome feel? How should this one feel different from the last? And then using those elements throughout each biome in order to define it. Defining moments and areas in the game will make you feel like you are somewhere familiar (Overland), but different each time.
I guess, in the end, I don’t expect anyone to listen to what I’ve created outside of the game. I don’t really see it as a soundtrack or whatever. If someone out there does end up really liking it and listening to it, though, it will make me happy, but I also like the idea of it just existing as one thing. With the game and sound just melted into one giant, inseparable thing. Like alien goo or something.
Miss N: Did you have any inspirations or things that helped you during the process?
Jocelyn: Some of my inspirations and who I aspire to be like some day: Delia Derbyshire, Else Marie Pade, Sofia Gubaidulina, Éliane Radigue, Daphne Oram, Popol Vuh, Eugeniusz Rudnik, and lots of others I know I’m forgetting. Also, Adam Saltsman always has good things to say, so I always like talking to him about sound.
Miss N: Were there any challenges you encountered or things that took you longer to figure out in making the music and sound for the game?
Jocelyn: There are a lot of challenges! I’m still working on Overland and I think the biggest is—and I’m sorry, gonna get personal here—I think fear/anxiety. Before Overland, I was just collaborating on really small projects. It’s my first big game to be working on, so I feel pretty overwhelmed sometimes. At times I think, “Wait — why did I think I could do this?!” But I’ve learned so much!
We ended up switching middleware at some point, and so I ended up having to learn how to use a lot of tools I had never used before! Games are pretty new to me, and so I always find lots of different challenges—especially technical ones, but those are mostly boring. Computers are weird. It’s especially hard knowing that people have preconceived notions of what a game should sound like. I’m still exploring and experimenting (and that will never stop) with things I like now. I guess I feel like I’m not purposefully trying to break any rules or norms—some I’m not aware of, but mostly I just want to make weird sounds.
I try not to think about how much attention Overland is getting and will keep getting. I just try to keep moving forward and focus on the kind of contribution I want to make to the game. It’s scary, but thankfully I have a really amazing team. I’m super grateful for them!
Miss N: What’s the one thing that you’re most excited about?
Jocelyn: I’ve asked myself this question. I’m not sure what I’m most excited about in my work in particular, but I’m just excited to ship it! Especially knowing that it was only a handful of us working on it. I’m excited to have the opportunity to work with such talented (way more talented than me) and amazing people.
Miss N: Any surprising things you learned or encountered along the way?
Jocelyn: One cool memory I have (I guess something I learned) was early on in the project, our then programmer would always say, “Jocelyn, anything is possible!” whenever I would ask if we could do a certain thing. And it’s true! Programmers can help the sound do anything! (Probably.)
Miss N: Looking back at all the games you’ve worked on, what’s the most challenging thing you’ve experienced when making music or designing sound?
Jocelyn: I’m currently working on a couple other projects, and time management is hard. Also knowing when you should focus on one project and then the other. Different times of day put you in different moods, and sometimes that can affect the project. Also anxiety. When I can’t get something right, it’s hard to walk away and take a break. Ear breaks are a must!
Miss N: What’s the most fulfilling?
Jocelyn: I can’t think of a specific moment, but I think the most fulfilling thing is creating something with someone and their reaction to what you make — especially when it fits really well, even if it’s not something they like. You get to know people creatively and bring your superpowers together, and that’s really cool. I guess, in short, the collaborative process, because it’s as if you’re melding minds or extensions of each other (when it’s just right).
Miss N: Are there any games that you feel have pushed the boundaries of the medium in terms of sound design?
Jocelyn: Hmm. Panoramical, I think, is a good example. That game pushed the boundaries on a lot of things. Your eyes and brain especially. Holy crap! They even have what they called Panoramical Pro, which licenses it for you to use either when you are DJing or if you just want to have it on autoplay to show to people. There’s other uses for it, too, but you can go here and find out more for yourself. I’m not sure I know of anyone else doing that or something like it. Ooh and Limbo! So good!
Miss N: Are there any women or nonbinary game makers who you really admire?
Jocelyn: Yes, of course! Some are people I think everyone should be more aware of and some are probably you already know. To name a few: @dreamfeelx, Nathalie Lawhead, Rachel Weil, Lucie Viatgé, Carol Mertz, Quin Matteson, Rebekah Saltsman, Heather Penn, Katie Rose Pipkin, Loren Schmidt, and Charles Elwonger (who I’ve worked with on some projects). Lots of things make these people awesome! These people have really made games a community I’m proud to be a part of. Their art and contributions have truly redefined and pushed the medium forward for the better. Can’t say that enough! They really inspire me to not only work harder, but to be a better human.
Miss N: If you could go back and give yourself advice when you were first starting out as a sound designer in games, what would it be?
Jocelyn: I’m still just starting out. So yeah, not really sure. Go to bed earlier!
Miss N: Thank you, Jocelyn!
If you’re interested in following Jocelyn, visit her website or follow her on Twitter @jirisrey. As always, if you know of any women or nonbinary game makers that you’d love for us to feature, drop us a comment or contact me.