Fighter jet. Blue. Easy-listening music. For most, seeing these listed side-by-side might prompt an eyebrow raise or a second glance. But for Geoff Garnett, senior sound designer on Overwatch? These concepts comprise the 750+ voice line-strong audio core of the game’s newest hero, Echo.
“We started with some key words and phrases that informed and directed me as I went along,” says Garnett, describing the infancy of Echo’s sound development. “For her, I was told she should feel like a fighter jet; she’s the most advanced tech in Overwatch; she’s an adaptive robot. So, I was looking at her model and saw that she doesn’t really have many servos.”
The servos Garnett refers to are electricity-and-gear-based motor systems that often make up the inner workings of vehicles and assembly line robots––both a far cry from Echo’s sleek, ultramodern aesthetic.
“All of her limbs are just kind of hovering,” Garnett continues, “which meant that there wasn’t going to be a traditional bweep, bweep, bweep servo movement to her. It was cool and unique that she was in cinematics before, and she was gonna be a part of our announcement cinematic for Overwatch 2. So, there was a collaboration between the game team and the cinematics team to determine what she was gonna sound like in ‘Zero Hour.’”
Once her cinematic feel had been defined, the team’s challenge became: How would they take Echo’s fleeting appearance in a cinematic and expand it into a medley of audio bites? How would they create the sound of her “floating footsteps” to signal when Echo was nearby in-game? What would Bastion’s ultimate line sound like when translated into spoken word by a fellow robot? These questions posed a monumental challenge, but Garnett was up for it.
“I started by creating this gigantic, ridiculous palette of sounds,” Garnett says. “Echo doesn’t have many mechanical parts or anything like that, so she’s very energy-based. I was looking at synthesizers and other sounds in the real world that might have an energy tone that resonated as blue to me. So, you had bell tolls, tuning fork hits––anything that sounded really soothing. When I was going more towards synthesizers and stuff, I was looking for subtle things I felt would have a presence around them all the time in-game that you wouldn’t get annoyed by. I think I used the reference that she’s sort of like easy-listening music. Her sounds are chill, like your mind is floating away on a cloud.”
With a cast of over 30 heroes, several of whom, like Echo, float around or fly in lieu of walking like their ground-bound comrades, the team needed to make her sound recognizable and unique.
“It was a really difficult design problem to face because all of the enemy sounds in the game sound way different from your first-person sounds,” Garnett says. “A lot of that is that you have to make sure that they don’t get in the way of gameplay. So, a lot of your first-person stuff is going to be more subdued, especially with our game’s floating characters, like Zenyatta and Sigma. And knowing how close she is––I always use McCree as an example, where you always know where he is because you hear spurs––what’s that going to equate to for a flying character? With Echo, she’s so mobile and fast; we really needed to draw attention to her. I chose more tonal, whiny noises that really catch your ear. Those sounds act, in a way, like her footstep presence; something that roots her as physical. But the further you get from her, the less physical it sounds.”
After nailing down the core aspects of Echo’s sound palette, Garnett then addressed the implementation of her voice acting. As an adaptive robot who can replicate the likenesses and abilities of others, her voice lines opened an avenue of expression distinct from all of Overwatch’s other heroes. Scott Lawlor, the audio director of Overwatch, pitched an idea: What if Echo were to replicate not only the other heroes’ models and talents, but their voice lines, as well? While the Overwatch team was excited about the idea, it meant a formidable task lay before Jeannie Bolet, Echo’s voice actress, who was responsible for nearly double the amount of voice lines spoken by Overwatch’s other heroes.
“That meant the actress not only had the challenge in that she had to perform in different languages,” says Garnett, “as different characters, male, female, and match that cadence, there was the additional question of––how many of these other lines said by different characters are we replicating? What we came down to was the ult lines and the abilities. If she clones Roadhog, she’ll use his chain and say, ‘Get over here.’ But it’s only the ult lines where there’s a parity between Echo and the hero she Duplicates, where you’ll hear both voices in sync. It’s something we thought not only would be cool, but would also relay critical gameplay information. It sounds weird by itself, Echo saying, ‘Justice rains from above!’”
Indeed, a solitary, robotic voice mimicking Pharah’s well-known ultimate voice line wouldn’t have the impact the Overwatch team desired. “But having the original Pharah voice line in there?” says Garnett. “That’s Echo cloning Pharah, using Pharah’s ult, doing justice.”
Follow the flight pattern with Echo, available to play now on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Switch!