Programmer by day, operatic voice artist by night, Chris Sutherland – or ‘Father Playtonic’, as he’s known in some corners – is the most senior and dexterous Yooka-Laylee team member.
With almost 30 years under his belt, Mr. S is responsible for building the mechanics AND making the fart noises in a generation of cherished gaming gold. To help dissect this winning combination, we managed to stop Chris serenading into his coding screen long enough to produce an interview.
For the latest tomfoolery from the Playtonic funhouse, don’t forget to eye up the Yooka-Laylee Kickstarter campaign, which is still dishing out rewards for generous backers.
Right then. Can you please describe how you do the moving in a 3D platformer?
In a platforming game the player is going to spend a large amount of the game navigating their way through the scenery, so it’s important that the fundamental character movement feels fun just by itself. The fun comes from a combination of the way the character handles when you move on ground, air or water, and then how that movement relates to the animations.
For Yooka-Laylee, I started with a cube rather than a character model; after all, if you can be entertained by moving a cube then you are going to stoke up the fun levels even more after replacing it with a Bat and Chameleon!
As we’ve added further moves and animations we’re always careful to ensure that the moves feel responsive as well as being visually entertaining. We have a rule that gameplay trumps animation though, so if the player character is going to be performing a move hundreds of times throughout play, having it feel great is our first priority.
“If it makes the game better, I’ll try mostly anything”
Interesting. So you’re used to doing this stuff – how has technology helped, or buggered up the process?
Well when creating earlier games such as Donkey Kong Country and Banjo-Kazooie, we’d build all the software and tools from scratch (e.g. for DKC all the pre-rendered visuals in the game were imported via custom software, running on a custom hardware created by Rare co-founder Chris Stamper). We had some basic information on how the console hardware worked, but when it came to writing software, it was often just me, a cup of tea and a copy of “Programming the 65816” (don’t worry, I won’t spoil the ending)
Nowadays we are building on top of software and systems that other people have created, so the time I used to spend working out solutions to problems is spent reading documentation or the internet to see how others have tackled that same situation (note: these are usually very specific searches, you won’t find “How to program all of Yooka-Laylee in a day”, I tried that search already)
Do you ever mess something up and realise, ‘hold on, that’s actually quite fun’?
In ways that you’d not expect. I tend to work incrementally, taking one small step at a time towards what I’m after and then evaluating it as I go, this can mean a change of direction as a result.
As an example, you might add a roll move, with the player character able to jump from it, but you’d forget to make the character swap out of the roll when they weren’t on the ground; you might then notice you can perform fun ‘extended jumps’ by rolling off edges and jumping mid-air. If you’d started with a written specification, you may never have considered that kind of tweak!
You’re a man who isn’t afraid to take on a bit of ‘flamboyant’ voice work – you’ve even rapped for the good of your art. Is there ANYTHING you’ve said no to?
If it makes the game better, I’ll try mostly anything! But sometimes it doesn’t work out as expected; when we were creating ‘Project Dream’ (later to become Banjo-Kazooie) there was a pirate’s song that required real speech (these were pre-gibberish days). We tried my ‘pirate voice’, but with each retake, as the verses advanced it became less pirate and more Scottish , in the end we located someone more able to Yo Ho Ho and Splice the Mainbrace!
Which of your many, many character voices was LEAST fun to perform? (and don’t say the rap)
They are all fun! But ones that involve a lot of shouting, whilst fun initially, you can only do for so many takes; and the following day after recording I vocally take one step closer to Barry White. When we did the Killer Instinct announcer voice, we would always leave the big shouts to the end of the recording session.
How did you come up with the voices for Yooka and Laylee?
The whole team spent a fair amount of time making unusual vocal noises as we posed the question, ‘What does a Chameleon and Bat sound like?’ I’m not quite sure how our neighbouring offices interpreted those sounds, but I do know one of them is now relocating…
Laylee was the first voice we created, and I think this matched quite quickly what was in our heads. Yooka has had a few iterations so far, as we wanted to keep him sounding distinct from Laylee. We’ll likely do a few more iterations until we’re entirely happy, as these are sounds you’ll hear quite often as you play through the game.
How hard is it to nail down the iconic ‘gibberish’ style your games are known for?
There’s actually two separate parts to these, first there is the vocal noise the character makes repeatedly and secondly there is the software to arrange that.
For the vocal noise, it sounds like a small task on paper just to create a few vocal samples, and you’d think it would be far easier than a traditional speaking park, but in some ways it is actually trickier, as you are trying to sum up the essence of a single character into a very short burst of sound!
The software takes a small set of these samples and orchestrates it to match the text that is being displayed; this gives the feeling that the characters are actually making those noises.
Finall, have you been practicing your rhymes in preparation for the ‘GK Rap’?
If the process is similar to the DK Rap, I will need a lot of practice! I recall when George [Andreas, designer] and I were recording it that it took a ton of takes to create it. We thought each time we were spot on, but Grant [Kirkhope, composer] would ask us to try again. And again. And some more after that. We didn’t get it, so eventually he replayed our audio and we could see why we hadn’t chosen rap as our vocation!
In the end, Grant somehow weaved some special audio magic to piece it together, making us sound like we knew what we were doing, and creating one of video gaming’s most infamous tracks! Next time… the world had better get some bigger ear defenders.