The Borderlands developers from Gearbox Software are moving into the fantasy genre with Tiny Tina's Wonderlands, a spinoff geared around Ashly Burch's excitable character and her love of tabletop role-playing games, but that transition was made extra-challenging by the realities of working remotely through the COVID-19 pandemic.
The game – which serves as a spiritual successor to Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep, a Borderlands 2 DLC that saw Tina guiding the player through her own demented equivalent of a Dungeons and Dragons campaign – required a lot of departures from Gearbox's usual toolbox, including an all-new soundscape that audio director Mark Petty was tasked with overseeing.
In the build-up to the game's launch in March, RadioTimes.com jumped on a Zoom call with Tiny Tina's sound overlord Mark Petty to talk about the challenges wrought on the production by working from home, and the creative solutions that were found by Petty himself, game director Matt Cox and their talented teams.
Petty starts by telling us that Tiny Tina's Wonderlands "was developed entirely in a work from home environment due to COVID, which changed our process quite a bit. The creature comforts that we were used to have coming into the office, having the studios, having the foley stage, having the voiceover booth, having our control rooms, all these things you see around me. That just was gone.
"So we had to rethink how we were approaching sound design in particular. One of the things about Wonderlands, jumping from the Borderlands universe of sci-fi, was the word 'fantasy', and the word 'magic'. Those got used a lot. So we started thinking about, how do we make that transition? And what does that transition look like?"
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The first step, once the team members were safe in their homes, was to start compiling an audio language. As Petty puts it: "For sound design, we started pulling references from Harry Potter, and listening to the magic, and forming descriptive words. Like, 'Wow, you know, that spell felt really pillowy'. So it was soft, and it was wispy, and you could hear the air coming around you, and those kinds of things."
After checking out some concept art and consulting with other teams at Gearbox, Petty and co decided they "wanted to take all of those takeaways from Harry Potter. But we also noticed that with Harry Potter, there was a certain amount of 'organic' to the way that they approached their sound design. Organic being defined as, like, real world sounds being used as the basis for something that is not necessarily believable."
This gave Petty and his team all the permission they needed to get creative with some DIY audio work. Petty recalls: "Being at home, we started playing with things around the house. So for instance, there's a mage that has a staff, and she swirls that staff around, and you see electricity, and you see this purple sort of swirl. And so for the electricity, we started doing things like using packing tape and stretching that out. Because, think about it, you get that crackling sound." Who knew you could find magic in such mundane items?
Without access to their usual suite of on-site resources, Petty's department began combining their homemade sounds. Petty remembers "layering that [packing tape sound] with, like, the whoosh of a high-pressure water hose on a fence, going back and forth. And then layering that with putting microphones in, basically, a kiddie pool, and taking sticks and swirling them around inside that."
Once Petty's team had "put all of those things together, then we added some synthesiser layers to it, to give it sort of that magical, over the top [feel]. And we found that, bringing all those things together, all those elements together, in that fashion... subconsciously, it just felt good, because we connected with the tape, and the water and the spray, and all of those things are things that are believable in our minds. And even though it's a subconscious effort, like you can't point them out in the sound, there's still connectivity there."
Petty could probably reel off examples of his team's ingenious working-from-home audio sources all day – from the crunching of egg shells, to the sound of popping candy in a cup of water – but one of his examples really stands out. When the team was pulling together the audio for some ice-based freezing spells, "that was like, taking a pair of jeans, getting them soaking wet, put them in the freezer, let it freeze, and then record the bending and the cracking". Try and spot that in the game!
These DIY sound effects will be backed up a full musical score, which also had some unique thinking behind it. Inspired by the game's concept art, Petty's team had the idea to "start at the beginning of the game with something that is more digestible, like traditional composition — so melodies, strings, things that are familiar, brass, those kinds of things.
"And then as the game progresses, and the game becomes a bit darker, what if that composition starts to deconstruct? And we're left with just tones and light percussion and things don't necessarily make sense from a beat perspective, even leaning into jazz, and sort of the dissonant nature".
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Adding yet another layer to the soundscape, to provide some juxtaposing sounds when you visit a town full of revellers who are clueless to the trouble outside, Petty's team "ended up recording a Celtic trio and doing a bunch of Celtic pieces. And we sprinkle that all through, almost like there's live players all through the town. And it's kind of a palate cleanser."
You've got to admire the creativity on display here. There's so much going on for your ears to enjoy, even without mentioning the impressive voice cast that sees Mythic Quest's Ashly Burch joined by Will Arnett, Andy Samberg and Wanda Sykes. But would Tiny Tina's Wonderlands sound different if it hadn't been for the pandemic painting Petty and co into a corner?
"That's actually a really interesting question," Petty ponders. "Yes, to a certain extent, I think choices would have been different. Not all the way through, like, we understood the vision, we understood the direction and we would have pushed in the same exact vein that we moved in.
"But I think that working from home, and not having the typical comforts of our environments in the studio, made us look to alternatives that, in my mind, in some cases, are more creative. Some of the traditional routes as far as props, or things that we would use in-house... this forced us to think outside the box. And that was an interesting creative exercise. And, you know, would it sound different? Yes. Would they be better or worse? I don't know. It would just be different. But nonetheless, the work-from-home did create a different environment to work in and a different approach."
And will Petty be taking any lessons from this working-from-home era back into the traditional workplace with him? Petty responds in the positive, saying: "You know, if anything, it opened up the door to what people can produce without being in our controlled environments, and just doing field recording."
He adds: "In this case, it kind of takes away all the excuses, like, 'I'm not in the studio, so therefore I can't create this thing'. And puts in front of you, like, anything can be [used in the game]... just use your ears, walk around the house, find those things and take those opportunities.
"So I think it instilled some confidence in how we're able to create sound in the work-from-home, and it also opened our eyes to new ways and new ideas. Coming back into the studio, [we're] not relying so much on some of the more, I guess, fundamental props and approaches that we've taken in the past. So it was quite a learning exercise, and it was a great experience."
Tiny Tina's Wonderlands launches 25th March 2022 for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S.