The Last Of Us 2: The Depth Of The Game’s Audio Experience

Published 07/19/2020, 12:13 PM EDT

Over the years, the games we play have not only improved in terms of graphics but also every other aspect which makes our gameplay experience more immersive. This takes into account the script, visuals, storyline, characters, audio, and a whole lot more. Today, gaming is not just limited to entertainment, it is an experience that will have a lasting impact on you. One such game that managed to give us that is ‘The Last Of Us 2.’

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Ever since the first part was released back in 2013, the game already had an emotional impact on the players because of its hauntingly beautiful story and gameplay. We only got to see the second part come out 7 years later. Obviously, a lot changed in these years, in terms of technology, so now we get games that offer a more realistic experience than ever before. One such aspect that makes TLOU 2 a masterpiece is the sound design.

Beau Anthony Jimenez is a sound designer who has worked on Destiny 2, TLOU 2, and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. The audio experience may be an overlooked aspect of the game but subconsciously that is what makes your gameplay experience even better. Beau took to Twitter to explain the intricacies of the sound design in TLOU 2, in two different parts. Saying you’ll be surprised after reading it is an understatement.

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The Last Of Us 2 Breathing System Thread Part One

He explains the character breathing system in the game and has divided it into two separate twitter threads. To understand it better, he divided the system into two fundamental concepts; ‘Murmuration’ and ‘Heart Rate.’

He explains ‘Murmuration’ as,

“Murmuration is a looping sound on a character. It’s the lowest priority sound possible, so any sound that triggers (from melee, anim, script or code) will stomp it. After the oneoff plays out, the loop will return where it left off, creating a seamlessness in the breath.”

Beau calls this as ‘the sound under the sounds,’ which is like standard sounds the different characters and NPCs make during the game, which is played on a loop.

Heart-Rate in the breathing system

That’s one part of the system. Next comes the ‘Heart Rate.’ Think of it as a value expressed on a scale of 0.0-1 (0 being the most relaxed and 1 being the most exerted). This ‘heartbeat’ applies to all characters, including NPCs.

“To measure the Heart Rate, there are states that I assign numerical values to called Heart Rate States. These states can be based on AI awareness (like Unaware), enemy attack type (like Bloater Charge), or anything needing a looping solution.”

Here comes the interesting part. Keeping in mind the states of AI awareness, programmers were able to segregate many such different states, based on different characters of the game.

“For example, Clickers have states that include Frenzy and Unaware, which have a target Heart Rate of 1.0 and 0.7 respectively.”

Murmuration and Heart-rate with regards to Ellie’s character

Beau then explains how this gives him the ability to loop a different sound based on different situations in the game. To explain this better, he cites the example of the game’s main character, Ellie.

Ellie has several heart-rate states that are segregated according to tension and whether she is sprinting or not. If Ellie is running in ambient tension like in combat with enemies around, the heart-rate is ‘ambient-high’ and if she’s not sprinting, it becomes ‘ambient-low.’ Her character has ‘Murmuration’ enabled on loop at all times.

This gives Beau control over the time it takes for Ellie’s breathing to transition from one state to another. Beau explains how this allows him to choose the duration of Ellie’s breathing, after sprinting for a short while.

“The possibilities become endless. I am able to do things like:

  1. Play different sounds based on how long you’ve been sprinting, in any tension.
  2. Play various stages of exhausted breathing after you’ve been sprinting for certain amount of time.”

He then explains how Ellie’s breathing has stages of intensity, depending on the state she is in (her ambient environment).

In the video above, you can hear Ellie’s breathing pattern and intensity change as she slows down and breathes harder. Beau also mentions how there are hundreds of different breathing assets (sounds of just inhaling and exhaling) which transition according to intensity, state, enemy awareness, etc. This makes you feel like you’re controlling an actual living entity.

Heart-Rate Transitions

But wait. It gets better. The heart-rate is also scripted to spike or fall during in-game moments. Take a look at this

So the character’s breathing and heart-rate are customized according to the situation, the ambiance, sprinting, and/or the level of danger the character faces.

The Last Of Us 2 Abby’s vertigo

In Abby’s case, the breathing also changes/intensifies, which is triggered due to her vertigo. Take a look:

Injuries to the character also prompt changes in breathing patterns.

This thread is just part of the Breathing systems. In the next thread, Beau explains how the sounds and character expressions/visuals come together to seem lifelike.

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The Last Of Us 2 Breathing system Thread 2 explained

In order to do justice to such a meticulous sound design, the team needed the character expressions to be in-line with it. Unfortunately, the existing lipsync engine was a failure, so animator Keith Paciello designed bespoke animations for the same.

Beau says, “There is a facial animation for every bucket of breath variations for the player, from open-mouth stealth to exhausted stage 2 combat, and everything in between! Eli Omernick programmed these animations to compress or expand, depending on the length of the sound file.”

This data is then sent in real-time so the animations are completely reactive to the sounds. This was applied to Abby’s vertigo as well.

The same is applied to Ellie’s facial expressions as well. Check out the video above. Depending on the state, intensity, and ambient awareness, including the sprinting, her expressions vary accordingly.

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Lastly, Beau mentions that this is difficult to notice but is a crucial contributing factor to the success of the game. He then thanked everyone who had worked on the project with him and mentions how proud he is to have worked on this masterpiece.

Toxic fanaticism and need for change

This thread shows us how much effort the team puts in to ensure an immersive gameplay experience for us. The Last Of Us 2 received a lot of hate for its story and Naughty Dog’s misleading marketing of the game before its release. Some of the actors even got threats that got to a point where Naughty Dog had to take legal action.

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In many ways, it is easy for players to criticize the work of game developers. But what they don’t realize is the effort the devs put in to bring every single aspect of the game to life and make it look realistic. Beau’s work on the audio is ground-breaking and shows just how much the devs actually care about the game and its experience.

Maybe it’s time to look at it from a different angle and appreciate the effort put in by these developers, instead of criticizing them.

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Akshay Patel

624 articles

Akshay Patel is the Group Head of the eSports division at EssentiallySports. After having obtained his BBA degree, Akshay has been in the field of social media and content creation since 2018. He grew up playing Counter-Strike and has been hooked on gaming ever since.

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