February 17, 2016 Leave a comment
I had the pleasure of interviewing some of the audio team at CD Projekt Red regarding their excellent new title ‘The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt’ which can be read below.
Q1. Firstly, congratulations on your recent Golden Joystick award wins (Ultimate Game of the Year, Best Visual Design, Best Gaming Moment and Best Storytelling). The audio is such a big part of The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, when competing with so many other assets, what challenges did you face fitting so much audio content into the game?
[KRZYSZTOF LIPKA, SENIOR SOUND DESIGNER] Thanks for your kind words about The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt! On the creative side, one of the toughest challenges was to shape a soundscape that would support the story. Given how deeply nonlinear the game is, we had to rethink and often completely change our approach. This involved making loads of tweaks on our custom sound implementation tools to grant every in-game scenario its own vibe. Possibly the best example here is the weather system. On the one hand, it can run wild, do its thing, while set free to roam, but on the other hand it can be carefully controlled during important story moments that required custom treatment. The second major “creative” challenge was to deliver audio layers that would be very natural and organic and yet be a magical gel bringing together all other in-game assets. Basically, our aim was to pollute the world with plenty of believable and highly detailed, specific sounds that wouldn’t feel repetitive, that would feel very organic. So we created tons of sfx variations for everything that needed sound support… You can imagine how hard it was to make that happen. Simultaneously, we consciously took a kind a rebel/garage approach towards sound design to to make players feel that this was not an average RPG game, not a standard title, but something that was in some way “dirty” and natural, and thus mature. Besides that we faced loads of technical challenges, but that’s far too broad a topic to discuss briefly.
Q2. From an auditory perspective, the environments are one of the highlights of the game for me – my first ‘wow’ moment was when first riding into the forest and wind started whipping up and rushing through the trees. I ended up standing still and just listening for 10 minutes. How did you go about implementing that and making the weather so dynamic and believable?
[PAWEŁ DAUDZWARD, SENIOR SOUND DESIGNER] Thanks. We put a lot of effort into this area, since it’s a layer that is with the player at all times. We opted to base everything on dynamic, living systems rather than resorting to single tracks that would have the full set of ambient sounds burned into them. So we set everything up to respond dynamically to various parameters such as wind speed, rain/storm intensity, time of day, location… To work, everything had to be split into its individual components: wind characteristics, water components (wave intensities, water types), leaves rustling (a few different types and intensities), branches cracking or other elements breaking due to stormy conditions, rain, thunder, etc.
Likewise, birds and other wildlife had to be assigned separate, clean sounds… Our most difficult job was to remove any unwanted noise from all those elements, all those components either we recorded ourselves or gathered from sound libraries. Each sound had to be fine-tuned to the system, to everything down- and upstream of it, so that the resulting mix of components was not muddy, instead, letting all the important gameplay sounds come through.
Having all those ingredients reacting independently to the various factors, then supplementing that with asset randomization, resulted in the soundscape you hear, a soundscape that is thoroughly dynamic and hardly ever identical in technical terms.
Q3. The Witcher is extremely dialogue-heavy and the story firmly depends on it. Roughly how many hours of dialogue do you have in the game and how long did it take to record it? Do you have any interesting stories from the recording process?
[KRZYSZTOF LIPKA] Dialogue recording sessions were a constant throughout the production process. They were a major team effort that involved a dedicated localization team, outsourced dubbing studios and, of course, a lot of support from the game’s sound designers. The recordings started in the project’s early stages and went on for nearly a year. In the end, the game included around 45 thousand lines. You need to take that number and multiply it by 7, because that is the number of full language versions we had. I believe, on a per language basis, dialogue voiceovers totaled more than 48 hours of audio. The outsourced dubbing studios handled 99.9% of the voiceovers, though there was a handful of special cases for which we recorded material in-house, though this mostly applied to the Polish language version. We also handled all of the VO mastering and the post-processing of specific lines (around 9 thousand lines per language) internally. Finally, we also organized the recording sessions for monster noises as well as human grunts and taunts. I remember this being a blast that gave us tons of cool material to work with, not to mention having our sound studios filled with game devs screeching, hissing, roaring and shouting for hours on end. One of the coolest sessions involved recording sounds for all the sex cut scenes in the game. By the time we were done, we had more than 2 hours of raw material that we later trimmed down to something that accounts for no more than 2 minutes of the in-game audio.
Q4. Did you use any special techniques to prevent repetitive sounds from becoming annoying? I have put a lot of hours into the game so far, and find it difficult to recall any lines of dialogue or grating sounds that I’ve heard over and over and been annoyed by (which is certainly a massive compliment to yourselves).
[PAWEŁ DAUDZWARD] Nothing special in this area, I’m afraid. In terms of assets, we produced a lot of variations (different takes) for things that we knew players would hear many times over in the game. Also, the old-school technique of pitch and volume randomization remains irreplaceable, and we applied it in many, many areas. But on top of all that, the game as a whole is deep and varied. That’s important as it greatly helps to mask repetitiveness, dilute any perception thereof.
[KRZYSZTOF LIPKA] Apart from the basic tricks and sound design philosophy Paweł mentions, I would also add that many of the sfx in the game respond to real-time parameters. Quite often real-time changes in, for instance, wind speed or the type/state of rain can enhance or even fundamentally alter listeners’ perception of a given sound, be it the scream of a noonwraith or the sound of sword striking its target. It’s funny, something of a paradox – sometimes the easiest way to avoid sound repetition, audio redundancy, is not to touch the sound itself… but to alter slightly everything else instead.
Q5. In regards to the beautiful score, can you talk me through the process of writing the score for such a huge game? At what point in the process did the music team get involved?
[MARCIN PRZYBYŁOWICZ, PRINCIPAL COMPOSER] We worked on the music for the game throughout the whole production cycle for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The first stage was preproduction – at the start of the project we had to review our tech, tools and workflow as compared to the processes that were in place for The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. We had this idea that we wanted to push the music further, make it an integral part of the game’s narrative. We knew we would need a new approach to implementation and to handling in-game music, so we started working on our own adaptive music system. Our main goal was to make players feel that the music was constantly evolving and adapting to the storylines they chose to follow and to their style of play.
Implementation was handled in Wwise, and we took full advantage of the software’s features. A significant share of the music is layered, so we used a set of parameters and switches to control the behavior of the music and to craft sound on the fly.
In the meantime, we set some new ground rules regarding the sound and style of our music. Since the Witcher universe draws heavily, though not exclusively, on Slavic mythology, it was obvious that the music would have to incorporate a pretty hefty dose of this vibe, too. Eventually, we decided to blend authentic folk elements with a big, contemporary sound. We ended up with something that now appears to be called “The Witcher” sound. We’re rather proud of that as it seems to indicate that our audience loved our ideas, embraced them.
During production we approached the game as one big adventure split into smaller parts, individual storylines or even quests. We treated the game’s main quest line and all those smaller threads as separate and distinct stories, with each of those stories getting its own cues, custom designed to match.
Q6. The two main regions (Skellige and Redania) have very different feels. How did you manage to create the two distinct regions in terms of sound effects and music?
[PAWEŁ DAUDZWARD] The Skellige Isles were going to be a harsh and cold environment – we knew that from the start. The design here was roughly based on the northern reaches of Scandinavia. The most important thing was to prepare the right type of wind, a more aggressive wind, especially at higher altitudes. Also, we focused on creating a different set of animals and birds for the region. Because the assumption was that the median temperatures there are lower, we also chose to reduce the number of insect sounds.
In contrast, for Redania and all the territory south of it that we refer to as No Man’s Land, we set out to create a more gentle, serene soundscape. We based our designs on elements we thought of as evoking the mood of Polish rural areas. Naturally, there were departures from this when we wanted to convey a sense of danger, have players feel the gravity of nature, its powers. But this was true for both areas, really, whenever weather conditions turned drastic and dangerous.
[MARCIN PRZYBYŁOWICZ] Every major location in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has its own unique feel, and the music had to respond to that. The music for the Skellige Isles was inspired by Nordic folklore, Scandinavian sound sets with some Celtic and Scottish elements thrown into the mix. You hear bagpipes in there, as well as a selection of very cool ethnic instruments, including the kantele, the hurdy-gurdy, dulcimers, etc. Tracks laid down for player exploration of the game world are more towards peaceful and atmospheric, while combat music sounds heroic and epic in this part of the game world.
Velen, or No Man’s Land, on the other hand, is a completely different world – a land ravaged by war, a dangerous and dark place that is full of monsters. In terms of dominant sound, this is the most Slavic location in The Witcher 3. For this area, we decided to use the long-necked lute and the kemenche as our base. Vocals play an important role, too, especially on combat tracks. Often, you hear vocals created using a special vocal technique called “white singing” (Polish: biały śpiew), which is unique to central and eastern Europe. The music in Velen is dark, aggressive, unsettling, such at times that I might even call it tribal.
The bottom line was to make music sound distinct in every major area, but at the same time it had to be cohesive, sound as if it belongs within a single musical realm, despite all the differences and variations. After all, whether they’re in Novigrad, Skellige or Velen, players should feel as if they’re playing one and the same game.
Q7. The weapons, mainly swords and magic, sound amazing and again not repetitive. Can you tell me how you went about designing and implementing the weapon sounds?
[PAWEŁ DAUDZWARD] We aimed to be as organic as possible. Early on in the process, we started assembling sounds for various weapon types, recording and gathering sounds for swords, axes, knives, pikes, etc., as well as for sets of armor and shields. This gave us a great base to then further tweak. Later on we used different sound libraries to enhance what we had recorded. On the implementation side, the system’s core was a rather complex matrix of sounds. In essence, it’s a mix of 4 different variables: hit type, weapon type, material type and body part being hit. The vast number of possible permutations of that set of elements is the main reason why players shouldn’t perceive much repetition. A majority of the components were fashioned and implemented by our fantastic sound designer, Laszlo Vincze, who ultimately deserves most of the credit for the final result.
Big thanks go to Robert Malinowski who made this interview happen, and PAWEŁ, MARCIN and KRZYSZTOF for taking the time out to answer these questions.