How the Flashpoint team captured the sound of the battlefield...
Audio director: Stephen Root
Audio manager: John Davies
Lead audio designer: Oliver Johnson
Audio designer: Jethro Dunn
In Operation Flashpoint, if your ears aren’t working, you’re a dead man.” So says audio director Stephen Root, a point emphasised in a TV commercial for the new title which, unusually, starts with just game audio against black frames. In a stunning simulation of the visceral unease of battlefield combat, where a careless head raised above a parapet is almost guaranteed to be blown off, hyper-aware listening is vital as you inch forward, often pinned down by an ever-present threat.
Realism is the watchword, so there’s no ‘Hollywood-isation’ and no effort spared on the weapons sound recordings. They took place on a shooting range in Nashville, featuring the use of complex capture set-ups – close, 200m and 500m mic’ing – to achieve the striking in-game juxtaposition of distant sound effects’ perspective against terrifying bullet-bys and impacts that bypass the brain to provoke a primal fear response.
“The flipside of the coin is that when you fire your own weapons – say an M32 automatic grenade launcher, which to be honest, in real life sounds like a massive stapler – you get the up-close and personal, relatively unimpressive sounds of the trigger and barrel movement followed by a hugely impressive explosion in the far distance,” says lead audio designer Oliver Johnson.
The audio team’s all-pervasive quest for authenticity means in-game music was never on the cards, though in the menus a beautiful, sorrowful, and achingly bleak score powerfully communicates the gravity of taking up arms to face a murderous enemy. However, as Johnson was only too aware, with no background music his sound design would be fully exposed: “Getting the world ambience right was critical and, thanks to recordist Chris Watson, we obtained some excellent source material. Chris records ambiences all over the planet and actually had bespoke captures made on the next island along from the one the game features – recordings taken at various heights above sea level and covering grasses, vegetation and wildlife. The quality was unbelievable and the resultant material really inspiring.”
Variation was also an issue, according to audio designer Jethro Dunn: “Variation is vital or the realism spell gets broken very quickly. That’s why we spent a lot of time experimenting with the sound of the wind, creating a dynamically changing envelope that enables a mere 28 seconds of assets to cover 14 hours’ gameplay. It sounds very different depending on the player character’s height above sea level and whether or not they are facing into the wind. I defy anyone to hear the joins!”
In a game where mission engagements may involve 200-300 metres’ traversal of the landscape, the sense of space created by the sound treatment of both ambience and weapons alike works well with pre-baked reverb from the original weapons recordings, contrasting superbly with the terrifying dry snap of bullets flashing past your head and the high drama of ordnance hitting your immediately surrounding scenery. It’s genuinely un-nerving.
Also impressive are the various speech systems. “If you’re close enough to a fellow-soldier, you’ll hear them speaking as normal but when they get beyond a certain distance, radiofied dialogue kicks in,” explains audio manager John Davies.
“The choice from pools of speech clips performed at various intensities is hooked to three game states, stealth, normal and high tension, from whispering to heat-of-the-battle barks. We also hook into the morale system covering postivity through general well-being to injured status. Marines are trained to believe they’re invincible so it’s a real shock for them to get hit and suddenly face their mortality. There are no corny ‘tell my mother I love her’ lines – it’s all about the psychological reality and awful pain they have to deal with in those moments.”
Meanwhile the mix does not fatigue, enhancing the game’s natural procedurally generated contrasts of eerie quietness and terrifying danger. “We took about two solid weeks in an external surround sound mixing studio for the audio balancing,” says Root. “That was greatly helped by the FMOD tools allowing Olly and Jethro to roll up their sleeves and change technical, replay and implementation parameters on the fly.”
“We’re grateful for the very positive reception we’ve had from consumers and reviewers alike and we even get real marines on our forums telling us it’s exactly how it should sound. As a team, we’re absolutely itching to make the next one and keep building on this body of work.”
John Broomhall is an independent audio director, consultant and content provider