This seems like an obvious statement given that it’s 2017, but despite all of the historical research we have, capturing the sound of the past is always a difficult and painstaking process. When creating a game like For Honor, you want that accuracy of the right sound a certain armour makes as a specific type of steel hits it, whilst also getting that pleasurable aural confirmation of having hit someone.
Nicholas Duveau is the audio director on For Honor by Ubisoft Montreal. He spoke to us about the research and work that went in to making the games sounds so accurate, but also so enjoyable.
"Sound design for warfare, be it historical or contemporary requires a certain level of research and a creativity, especially when immersion and on-the-spot emotional reactions are key to the player’s experience," Duveau says.
"First we define where we want to sit in terms of the boundary between authenticity and fantasy. We’ll always seek to be precise and accurate to an almost documentary level, but video games are also a product for pure entertainment, so we share our historical facts through a playful filter. The second most important element is getting the right perspective, regardless of the game’s POV. The question we must ask ourselves is whether we are a spectator to a series of events, or a part of them?
"We do research on all character types, the armour they wore and the type of material they were built with. We do the same for weapons and environmental/structural elements like wooden gates, mechanical features of war machines such as battering rams, for example. We also look for movie scenes featuring these elements to see how they have already been treated in their own specific context by other fellow sound designers.
"We then define specific production guidelines, which would include audio source acquisition methods such as field recordings, foley sessions and sound library research. In addition to this, we have a complete action and movement list that will eventually need to be covered, including offensive and defensive hits, scraping, whooshes, tears and piercing for example."
Setting is as key as the game’s objects. There’s going to be no immersion or believability in the scenario if you’re walking past a burning fire and you can’t hear it crackling, or past a box of chickens that aren’t making any noise. Audio does a great job of setting the player in to the environment. Duveau explains how they approached this process in For Honor.
"We first ‘paint’ the environmental content of a level, he says. "We start by building the acoustic geometry of the level, identifying and creating all the areas where sound will reverberate. Even before we actually place the ambience in the maps, (air, rain, distant and close warfare, etc), we are able to generate spatial audio information just by playing around with the characters. These generated character and weapon sounds in a reasonably empty map will then create a natural dimension with the map’s layout and geometry through dynamic reverb.
"With the pre-rendering of the environment audio as a base to work on, we can then build a surround sound ambience to give purpose and character to these rich environments.
"Each map will also go through a signature treatment, where we identify a visible or non-visible landmark, a cultural symbol or an environmental feature that can be exploited through sound. These could be a ghostly gong/chimes for the Samurai, a distant horn for the Vikings or a church bell for the Knights for example."
Creating the right nosies for the characters is also tricky because, regardless of how good documentaries are at revealing the past, we still can’t here the noises, the grunts, the dialects and many other things that would have been heard by these historical combatants.
"Everything is based upon the balance of authenticity and fantasy," Duveau says. "We give life to the details of each character’s graphical features; for example, each moving part, each material texture and each accessory seen on the characters will have a presence on the overall audio.
"We then proceed with pure sound design editing to add some special effects layers to accent specific movement. These include sculpted whooshes for the weapons, specific low-frequency booms for the footsteps, processed chains or chainmail for the body movement cycles. All of these contribute to giving each character a unique and distinctive sound presence that not only serves the aesthetics of the character but also provides some audio feedback of the character’s presence.
"Voices also have an important contribution to the definition of each character. Each faction-based NPC character not only has voice sets based on the language setting of the consoles, but they also have specific voice sets based on the native language each faction could have had in their own culture. For the Vikings, we’ve been to Reykjavik in Iceland to record Icelandic actors and actresses, Tokyo was our destination for the Samurais and we adapted all our voice scripts in Latin for the Knights.
Of course when you put this all together, having a group of foley artists, and sound engineers recording noises can mean only one thing – people battering each other with swords in the name of authenticity and video game enjoyment. That’s got to be fun, right?
"The weapon sounds have probably been the most fun audio elements we have produced," Duveau explains. "They have also been the most complex. We already owned some pretty good sounding impact and manipulation sound libraries, but we needed a lot more specific source material to be able to design a unique signature for each of the different weapons the characters are welding and to build them in the layer structure we’ve defined.
"So, with a team of sound recordists, foley artists and an impressive quantity of metal props, swords, armours, plates and even fireworks, we set-up a three day field recording session. This took place in early April deep in the woods, at the end of winter right before nature woke up so we get a near silent environment. We then proceeded with extensive recordings of impacts, manipulation and destruction in different locations to get a vast variety of audio reflections and natural delays, making each source sound unique."
THE DRUMS OF WAR
The fantasy element also adds the entertainment quality in music. Composition so often drives the drama and indicates a situations severity. So how does For Honor approach its music, without competing with all of the other great audio work and balacing that all out? Duveau explains the three categories the team splits the in-game music in to.
"There would be the out-game score, the in-game narrative score & the in-game Drums of War. The out-game score covers mainly the menus and the meta-game sections of the game, providing a peaceful musical background for all the time the players will spend managing their assets, their inventory and customising their characters and items. Centered around the multiple faction themes, these would evoke peace.
"The in-game narrative score is used in the campaign. As it supports the narrative, they tell stories on their own. Each faction has its own musical structure and instrument set and faction music has a specific vibe, a genuine rhythmic presence and a unique soul.
"The in-game Drums of War are the heartbeat of the battlefield, the metronome of duels, the musical representation of the art of battle. They can be intimate, or they can be brutal."
For Honor from Ubisoft is available now for PS4, Xbox One and PC.