How does a team in Montreal recreate the blistering sounds of a war-torn African nation on the brink of collapse? John Broomhall finds outů
Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Audio director: Jeff Wesevich
Sound design: Michel Marsan, Olivier Girard, Justin Phillips, Dave Blake, Amaury LaBurthe
Audio programming: Raynald Bouchard, J. F. Levesque
Original music: Marc Canham
Dialogue direction: Patrick Redding
Sound FX – 10,000 files
Music – 128 minutes
Dialogue – 12,000 lines
True or false – Ubisoft have a full-time Foley artist on staff? The rather wonderful (and slightly mind-blowing) answer is that it’s true. But more of that later. First, we asked Michel Marsan and Jeff Wesevich about Far Cry 2’s bold creative step of choosing a quartet-based music score.
“We decided to take a very different musical direction from other shooters,” said Marsan. “We weren’t afraid to take a risk, though it was vital to have ample opportunity for experimentation. Demos were a useful proving ground for ideas with Requiem For a Dream’s soundtrack emerging as the main music reference. We wanted to express the darkness and madness of the struggle between Far Cry 2’s two fighting factions.”
The avant garde approach sometimes felt at right angles to the lush African backdrop, said Wesevich: “We developed the implementation whilst Marc and Richard at Nimrod Productions faithfully remixed and reworked the music itself and, gradually, it all gelled. We ended up with something lighter, sitting in the action mix a lot easier and giving us freedom to use music in places we hadn’t anticipated. There’s room for speech and FX with the quartet flowing in with the action and ambiences – it’s emotional and ethereal, but has a distinct identity. It’s also interactive with a variety of game state triggers reflecting various combat and suspense levels as well as case-specific music, such as for walking in the woods or chases.”
Interactivity was also vital for the 12,000 lines of authentic dialogue recorded with South African actors in-country. One programmer spent the entire project dedicated to creating credible AI conversation in response to game events, whether overheard as the player stalks the field or in the thick of battle.
Critical to the game design was conjuring the ambient sound of the African desert and jungle.
“We needed you to really feel you’re there,” continued Wesevich. “It’s a 24 hour experience – time will pass and what you hear in the middle of the morning as opposed to the dead of night will vary greatly. Where you are, what type of terrain you’re in, how dense it is, and what kind of terrain you’re next to are all important factors which our complex system takes into account, literally programming the sound replay by the hour.
“There are two ambient sound ‘clouds’ around the player – one for far sounds and one for near. 3D sounds attenuated for distance are positioned randomly with lots of variation – the same effect appearing twice may sound distinctly different depending on where in 3D space it pops up.
“For the far ‘cloud’ we have alternative volume curve set-ups with delay and reverb processing added. Then we can mix ‘cloud’ sets – for instance, evening sun starting to go down and transitioning jungle to savannah, so you’ll maybe have some ‘jungle distant’ mixing with ‘savannah close’. In 5.1 it pulls you off the screen and produces an almost physical feeling of being there – if you fire a weapon, the birds and insects stop immediately. Add the music kicking in and you start to get a real nice feel for a lot of the action.”
So, back to the subject of Foley. “For Far Cry 2 alone we probably did more Foley than for any movie,” said Marsan. “The weapon manipulations require a lot, and then there’s masses of idle animations – cutting in from CD libraries isn’t good enough, it has to be done precisely to fit. We put lots of small audio elements together on-the-fly to create a composite detailed picture. Landing from a jump will sound different depending what equipment you’re carrying, so if you have Molotov cocktails hanging off you, you’ll hear the liquid swishing in the bottles when you land heavily. And yes, it’s true we have a full-time guy called Tchae Maesroch working out of Montreal doing Foley for many of our games – it’s really great!”
Do FC2’s audio gurus consider this a sign of how far game audio has come – and will it go beyond movie sound? Marsan is confident that it already does: “We’re dynamic, we’re interactive – we’re ahead of movies in that respect. We have to think through all the audio situations and consequences of the player’s actions.”
“What we’ve been able to do with current-gen is incredible – especially with run-time processing,” agrees Wesevich. “But it’s still much easier to mix in a movie: you have such freedom to change the sound treatment – freeze the audio, do crazy special effects, go to unreality and back – all to tell the story and grab the attention. In games we’re still working that out. I’m really excited to see how things pan out over the next two to three years, and I hope my next project will have this approach as a centrepiece.”