Rebellion lead audio designer Nick D Brewer speaks quietly to Sean Cleaver about designing audio for stealth shooter Sniper Elite 4

Sniper Elite 4: Boom Shot

I’m walking along small road, high up a hill, with a slightly broken wall masking my approach. Across the valley in front of me is a bridge that I need to traverse. On it several soldiers are patrolling the route. I have the perfect sight but the noise of my rifle will give away exactly where I am. Suddenly I hear the bellow of a large gun and the solution presents itself – fire my gun at the same time to mask the sound.

Sound is a big part of stealth, and the above example from my time playing Sniper Elite 4 has (pun not intended) resonated with me since. So I thought I’d ask developer Rebellion and lead audio designer, Nick D Brewer, how they go about creating their audio.

“I’d never want to be that guy who imposes his design upon the rest of the department,” Brewer says. “One of the things I love about our sound team is that we are very much on the same page when it comes to what we love about good game audio, and what we’d like to see in our own.”

I think gameplay design can benefit from considering audio right from the start 

Nick D Brewer, Rebellion

This kind of working environment is so important when sound design is an integral part of your game. “We spend probably more time on environment audio in the Sniper Elite games than anything else,” Brewer says. “The stealthiest of players could spend hours crawling through a level, stopping in every nook and cranny.” “So weeks are spent building up every environment sonically. Pebble-dashing the landscape with point- sourced ambient effects: every tree rustling, every wooden bridge creaking. Scatterings of incidental wind gusts, chirping crickets, water lapping against the shore. All that coupled with our ‘Audio Architecture’ system, a tool which allows us to mimic the geometry of the level itself with volumes dedicated to reverbs, occlusion relationships, and other additional layers of ambient audio.”

I recounted my experience playing the game to Brewer who also has memories of creating gameplay scenes like that. “It was back on Sniper Elite V2 when that concept first got introduced, as nod to a scene in the Enemy At The Gates film, where Jude Law’s character picks off German soldiers in a building one by one, timing his shots with nearby shell explosions.

“Then along comes Sniper Elite 3, and now 4, and we’re suddenly moving Karl through two theatres of war that aren’t seeing anywhere near as much aggressive relentless attacks from above, or noisy skirmishes on the ground – the constant exploding of nearby shells is no longer an option.

“So the dev team was challenged to re-think about this sound mask feature, in some cases even making it the focal point of the whole mission. I think gameplay design can benefit from considering audio right from the start, to the same extent it does from thinking about how it will look and feel.”

Creating the correct sound for historical warfare is always going to get harder as the equipment that was used gets older. “We were lucky in that someone who did outsource sound design for us during this project had recently been to a gun range with a whole variety of microphones,” Brewer says. “Making weapons and machines in a game sound authentic to their real-world counterpart isn’t always fitting with what we as players have come to expect or want from our video games.

“Let’s say a game you’re playing has gone super authentic with its Sound Design – Level 1 got you equipped with ‘Rifle A’ and much later on Level 2 kits you out with ‘Rifle B’, and it just so happens that even though the latter weapon in reality is an upgrade in terms of damage, it actually sounds a little bit naff compared to the first one. We have to adhere to some kind of gamer anticipated hierarchy of coolness with each newly collected gun, while not straying too far from the reality of those sounds. You’ve got to get the right balance.”

So what’s Brewer’s favourite sound? It has to be the X-ray kill cam. “It’s truly the one moment in Sniper Elite development when we can completely ditch the constraints of realism for a while and just make the most intense OTT and in-your-face assets we can muster,” Brewer says. “From the initial boom of the rifle shot, the insane screeching whoosh as we ride the bullet through the air, and the multiple crunch and splats of the victims organs and bones exploding as it finishes its fatal journey. Lovely.” 

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