The Sound of Water

I’ve just come across an interesting discovery which is at the same time really trivial, but also really interesting – at least to me.

I’ve just bought Portal 2, the sequel to Valve’s amazing game (which, at last brought some new game play ideas to the mainstream computer game market). On starting the game, I’ve been struck by my find at the point in the game just after you find the Portal Gun and move on. What I’ve been struck by, as you enter a hallway with some old computers, is a sound, a sound which has been present in computer games since at least 1996 and connects id Software’s original First Person Shooter, Quake to the present via film-maker, Andrei Tarkovsky.

As game fanatics may know, iD sold a license to the 3D engine that drives Quake to Valve Games for their early classic game, Half Life. So, the internal code that creates the environment of both of these titles shares a common link. Valve spent 6 years working on the sequel to the Half Life title before finally presenting Half-Life 2, a game powered by their own Source game engine.

The Source engine is the system that creates the 3D world and physics of their next defining title, Portal and is still there in Portal 2, released in April 2011.

In between the 16 years that separates these two games I got my original chronology wrong here, in fact it was in 1979 that Russian film director, Andrei Tarkovsky released the amazing, hypnotic film, Stalker. A tale of an area of Nature gone wild that begins to thrive after a meteorite strikes the Earth, and a magical wish-fulfilling room at it’s heart. Visitors enlist the aid of the titles Zone-savvy Stalker to navigate the hazardous region in order to find, and enter The Room.

Appearing in, and linking each of these separate elements is a sound which is so distinctive it jumped out at me when I encountered it during this first run through Portal 2.

I can’t say why it’s in all of these things, but it is.

If you’re interested it’s this sound, found in /ambience/drip1 of the pak0.pak file from Quake:

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22/12/11: I put a post on the forum at American McGee’s site and he kindly replied here:

That’s an excellent question. And there’s a really simple answer. All the same sound effect. And all taken from a sound library that each company bought/used for their individual project(s). When I was making sound effects for Quake my sound library consisted of CDs bought from a company… the name escapes me now (that’s where the drip came from). And also a large library created from scratch and provided by the Nine Inch Nails guys. To create any one sound in Quake I’d use something raw from one of those sources or combine different sounds from different sources to create something new. I also did some foley work of my own – exploding fireworks inside tubes on the roof of the id offices, for example. That’s where the distinctive “whump” sound from an underwater grenade explosion originated. The Nail Gun sound was a combo of guns, helicopter turbine whine, etc.

8 thoughts on “The Sound of Water”

  1. This is my favourite sonic geekery post for quite some time! I never played Half Life or Portal 2 and I haven’t seen Stalker. But I love that you have done all these things and spotted a sound they have in common!

  2. It just struck me that there’s probably a story there which I’d love to know. Did it start as a library file, then become an iconic audio fragment that brings a resonance and history to projects that contain it ?

  3. I watched Stalker last week and noticed the same thing! I didn’t know how likely it was that it really was the case so I started to look into it. This is the first item I’ve found confirming it. I wonder if someone from iD could confirm it? I played Quake so many times and this sound is stuck in my head. I’d love to tie it all together neatly.

  4. Great to get some confirmation that I’m not the only Quake sound geek out there !

    According to Wikipedia, American McGee was the sound designer for Quake.
    He left iD after Quake 2, worked at EA and has now set up as an independent studio, based in Shanghai.

    He seems to answer questions on his site forum, so I’ve just posted on there. Would be great to get a reply about this.

  5. Hi Martin, Just seen American McGee’s reply about this. So awesome he took the time to answer, and confirm it’s the sound we thought! Nice :)

  6. I did wonder whether royalty free sound effect CD’s would really have been available in Russia in the mid-70’s when “Stalker” was being made though. And is it likely that the same CD would be knocking about the iD offices in Texas in ’96?

    Good to hear the stories about the original foley work though :-)

  7. Hi Martin,

    There are several other video games in which the sound appears.
    Two that I remember are:
    Metal Slug 3 (mission 3, secret area),
    Quake 4 (sewer level),
    and I am sure I played other movies and video games where the sound was present.. :)



  8. This effect has popped up all over. I remember it distinctly from Deep Space Nine. Someone on Youtube showed where it was used in Breaking Bad. I can’t remember how many times I’ve heard it in TV/film. I think this goes beyond just a heavily-used SFX library and that it’s being used deliberately by SFX folks as an in-joke, like the Wilhelm Scream.

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