John Broomhall talks with Supermassive Games’ Barney Pratt
As audio director, Barney Pratt was responsible for shaping the sound of Until Dawn, from concept to final delivery. It was always clear that audio would play a pivotal role, with original music from composer Jason Graves being a key factor – a ‘big soundtrack’ matching the epic mountain setting and dark forces at work – and a fresh take on interactive music implementation.
“You should feel like you’re ‘playing the film’ so a straight ‘stems/states’ interactive music approach wouldn’t have provided the variety, nuances and emotional edge of a horror movie,” Pratt explains.
“Actually almost all Until Dawn’s music was edited in a traditional film sense: stems fitted to picture augmented with bespoke edits to run off into stems or loops driven by various game parameters.
“But player choice is a key game feature. As the narrative branches and therefore the emotional curve, so too must the music. Needing to reflect clear differences between ‘hide’ or ‘run’ choices further reinforced the need for bespoke music cues to closely illustrate the player’s own effect.”
As a new IP, the Supermassive team felt that Until Dawn deserved a unique soundtrack and Pratt applauds Graves for providing that.
“Over several conversations we established firm trust on the music direction, which I kept very open to allow him to really leverage his experience and creativity. He delivered a brilliant, rich orchestral score – but in stem-form often as wide as 19 stems, enabling really tight edits to exactly match the gameplay.
“They worked in any number, interactively, or could be separated to re-work elsewhere. Even the more melodic cues, when separated into stems, could have their core extracted and overlaid with new elements, twisting the original intention of the cue, such as a love theme underpinning violent action. Jason generated a gold mine of emotional suites for me to dig into and cross-fertilise. The filmic nuances and music variety in UD just wouldn’t have happened without such a strong collaboration – and from so early on.”
Sound without boundaries
Another technique Pratt’s team established was to force diegetic player position to effect non-diegetic stem mixes. For example, the volume of a violin stem could increase or decrease as players approach a door, and this could be used to pre-empt a scare or trick the gamer into expecting one.
“It created a language we could have some fun with,” he says. “Characterisation and foley were also significant focuses – our characters looked great and they needed to sound great. We employed various techniques to get the dialogues sounding as natural as possible, including group recording sessions and a
multi-layered speech playback system so there’s always some sequence of sounds, however subtle, emanating from a character’s mouth, right down to gentle lip-smacks, gulps and sighs.
“Emotive sounds like these were key to gelling the scripted dialogue lines. Character foley was also crucial to conveying not just movement but also mood, from a parker jacket ‘slip’ to a leather coat ‘creak’, a bare foot ‘pat’ or the unforgettable sound of two denim seams passing each other, we had unique foley for all variants of all characters.”
Another challenge was that the characters’ motion capture data provided an infinite range of movement, and therefore an infinite range of foley. This prompted Pratt to develop procedural systems that trigger character footsteps and cloth.
“Innovative as they were, these systems didn’t provide the exact subtlety we wanted, so we had an additional layer for anything missed elsewhere, to achieve the smooth sense of foley you’d expect from a film sound treatment,” Pratt says.
“We knew we wanted to merge the best bits of film and game horror in order to maintain immersion and achieve new extremities of player response – and I’m very happy with how it turned out.”