In this interview, hear from Kenneth Bassham, Senior Sound Designer at Gunfire Games, about how he and his team designed Fury's powerful sounds and collaborated with trust for everyone creatively involved - both old and new, local and remote.
Written by Adriane Kuzminski. Images courtesy of THQ Nordic.
Darksiders III was released six years after Darksiders II and after a transition in studios, though production stayed in Austin, TX. Did anyone on the current sound team work on the previous games?
Kenneth Bassham (KB): Of the current sound team at Gunfire Games both Jeremy Robins and I worked on Darksiders I, Darksiders II and now Darksiders III. For the other two guys, Matt Skidmore and Tom Schmidt, Darksiders III was their first foray into the franchise. Fun Fact: Mathew Guzenda, our studio director and fellow Vigil alum, also jumped in and helped with audio editing and keyframing when he had the bandwidth. It was an awesome mix of old guard and new blood.
This was the case with our outsourcing partners as well. Clark Crawford, one of our great outsource partners, has contributed to every installment of the Darksiders series. We were also excited to have the talented group at Team Audio jump on the ride with us for Darksiders III as we started down the final stretch of game development.
How did leading the audio in this project compare to the titles you led while at BioWare?
KB: When I started as Audio Lead on Star Wars: The Old Republic, the game was post-ship and in content creation mode. I was more focused on tool improvements, optimizations, and of course asset creation and outsourcing for an immense project. In contrast, Darksiders III was a new project, new protagonist, new abilities, new engine and needed to fit perfectly into an established IP that we started so long ago. In that way Darksiders III was kind of a homecoming for me. Having worked on the previous two installments under some great mentors, it was exhilarating to be given the trust by Jeremy Robins (Audio Director) and the leadership at Gunfire Games to shape the audio from the beginning for Fury and her journey.
Fury is a fantastic protagonist, and while she has many similarities to her Horsemen brothers, she brandishes a bladed whip, metal armor, heels, and some powerful flames. What was your approach in designing her Foley?
KB: From the onset we knew we wouldn’t treat Fury any differently from the other Horsemen just because she was a female protagonist. She is just as formidable as her brothers War, Death and Strife… though, extra credit for slaying all her foes in heels. Armor still had to sound like it protected her but not so heavy that it would keep her from moving about as quickly as she does. Her weapons (bladed whip, flails, hammer and others) all revolve around magic and her hollows were designed with these pillars in mind. The bladed whip held together by magic is very fluid in its movement; the hammer on the other hand is slow, massive and powerful. The flails were sharp and agile; the sword a little slower to move but just as deadly and could slow enemies, while the spear was imbued with the massive power of storms.
As the story progresses, Fury is bestowed with abilities given by the Lord of the Hollows. How did you differentiate the sound design of these powers?
KB: For the most part Fury’s abilities are based on real-world elements. The Flame and Storm Hollows were kept straightforward using traditional fire and electricity sources and sound designed to our liking. The Stasis Hollow had a few iterations as we wanted to try staying with what stasis was supposed to represent, slowing or stopping, so we took the approach of “freezing” space and time. Ice and glass were used as the foundation sources with some chimes sprinkled in for good measure.
We leaned into synths and magnetic earthy elements, and even dry noodles to bring this hollow to life.
The Force Hollow was designed to be both a traversal mechanic and the heaviest of attacks. It gave Fury the ability to envelop herself with magic and crystalline rocks so that she could reach previously inaccessible areas. We leaned into synths and magnetic earthy elements, and even dry noodles to bring this hollow to life. There’s even some dub step material layered in to help give it an aggressive edge.
Fury travels across several environments to hunt down the Seven Deadly Sins – through chirping, overgrown skyscrapers, skin-crawling cesspools, and rocky, lava-filled chambers. How did you make each of these highly textured environments distinct, and what was the ratio of studio-recorded elements to sound libraries?
The first question we ask is when the player enters an area, what feeling do we want to invoke?
KB: Those are some great descriptions of a few of the environments Fury travels through! It doesn’t hurt having uber talented concept and environment artists inspiring us by providing great visual palettes. As the imagery comes online, the first question we ask is when the player enters an area, what feeling do we want to invoke? When Fury lands on the streets of Earth you can see the ruins of a civilization, so birds of prey are prevalent and portray a sense of despair. You can hear the decay of the environment that is no longer populated or maintained by humankind. As she moves through the city, she discovers Haven where Ulthane and a handful of humans have taken up shelter in this huge overgrown tree. The closer she gets to the tree, birds of prey heed way to song birds giving a bit of hope that maybe Earth isn’t completely lost yet. From there we look at the basic foundations of the environment. Is the area open to the sky or is it underground? Is it a dry or wet location? What kind of fauna would we expect to hear in the environments? Etc. Environments can tell stories as well so we just try to make sure they are told… as trite as that may sound.
With our audio team being only four strong and working on a minimum of two projects at a time, we rely heavily on sound libraries. While we would love to be able visit remote locations to record some actual lava, it’s not practical. Plus, we are happy to support the amazing recordists both commercial and boutique, as they have the expertise, time, equipment, and locations necessary to capture truly unique sources. That said, we do record Foley, vocalizations, etc., when it makes sense. We also give our outsourcers the freedom to do what they feel is best for a given set of deliverables. For instance, the Bonelands area in Darksiders III was probably 90% custom-recorded source from the folks at Team Audio. In the end we want the best for the player experience.
Something that stood out compared to the last games was the rich use of reverb, especially in the skyscraper region. Since the game was developed in Unreal Engine 4, did you create the reverb zones with UE4 or middleware?
KB: While we evaluate middleware at the start of every project, for Darksiders III we stayed with UE4 through and through. Jeremy meticulously curated all the reverbs within UE4 using the tech provided within the engine and we strived to add a realism to the emersion with reverbs and ambiences. This also required significant region implementation to accurately articulate the environments.
Half the fun of any hack-and-slash adventure is encountering new enemy types, and Fury comes across monsters of all sizes. How many types of foes appear in the game, and how does their sound design relate to their native environments?
KB: Including variation (re-skins, additional combat moves, etc.) I think we ended up somewhere just north of 50 creatures. Similar to previous Darksiders games, we themed the sound design for each creature as they related to the environments. The skeleton and undead had vocal processing that leaned into the mood of the causeway, while the lava creatures had processing that worked with the lava. These creatures were also designed to be dry, rocky, brittle, etc. In the Nether sections there were undulating egg sacks, hard-shelled crab-like minions that carry Sloth around on his throne, good old flying mosquitoes and Fury’s favorite pal the Bomb Bug. A certain theme was definitely easy to spot so we wanted them all to have a creepy crawly vibe, so you’ll hear them chittering and skittering about.
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For the boss battles, the Seven Deadly Sins were excellent adversaries who not only challenged the players’ skills but also Fury’s sense of self-perception and purpose. Which Sin was the most enjoyable to design?
We asked Matt and Tom to join up to tackle these beasts together with the end goal being to make sure sounds were cohesive from both teams
KB: Oh wow, that is a tough one. The uniqueness of each Sin and their abilities married with a voice actor and a powerful combat track made them all enjoyable in their own way.
For me personally it was actually listening to Gluttony and the Kraken come together. Originally, they were both separate creatures, the Kraken a gate mechanic and Gluttony a Sin boss. At this point in development only the Kraken had been created and placed. The creation of these sounds were outsourced to Team Audio and implemented internally. As design started on Gluttony’s gameplay mechanics, they came up with a cool way of pairing him up with the Kraken. With Team Audio having moved on from the Kraken and working on other assets, we asked Matt and Tom to join up to tackle these beasts together with the end goal being to make sure sounds were cohesive from both teams. An added unique challenge was that a portion of the fight takes place completely underwater. Without hesitation they came up with a plan and executed. It was awesome to see them work as seasoned game veterans even though they are still new to the industry.
I can’t overstate the amazing voice talent in this project with Cissy Jones as Fury, Fryda Wolff as the Watcher, Misty Lee as Envy, Darin De Paul as Lord of the Hollows, and many others both recurring and new. Everyone did a great job of giving their characters commanding presences, and though they all spoke with similar dialects, each actor delivered a distinct and memorable performance. On top of selecting great talent, do you have any tricks for enhancing the dialogue to make it pop?
Watching the cast breathe life into the characters that previously were just pixels on screen is something that hopefully every sound designer gets to experience once in their life.
KB: Darksiders III was the beneficiary of having some of the titans of the industry as the cast! Getting to experience their work up close and personal while at the sessions was absolutely amazing. When recording some of those recurring characters it just made me smile as it was the true realization that Darksiders was back. Each actor did something special with their characters and I could rave on and on about every single one of them. Watching the cast breathe life into the characters that previously were just pixels on screen is something that hopefully every sound designer gets to experience once in their life.
We partnered up with WB Game Audio for our dialogue recordings and they provided us with a great foundation before we ever actually touched the files. Once we received the files, we created custom batch processes ranging from compression and eq to doublers, granular synths, and impulse processing. After the processing we level them to our spec and plug them into Unreal. In Unreal we used passive mixers to duck sound effects and music ever so slightly to give it a touch more room to breathe. From there it was just a matter of reviewing for consistency and performance and tweaking as needed.
I have to say the cinematics made me yearn for a Netflix series. Darksiders has had a strong story from the start – the conclusion of the first is some gamers’ favorite ending in video games – and the third aced every engaging cutscene. How did you maintain a consistent mix and energy while transitioning back and forth between the gameplay and cutscenes?
KB: Yes! Netflix and THQ Nordic make it happen yeah?! Working within UE4 there were several options in front of us. Traditional linear, level sequencer, or animation tagging. We ended up going with a combination of level sequencers and animation tagging. While this workflow was more cumbersome than working in a DAW, it provided the most flexibility allowing us to rely on the sound classes to impart dynamic mixing without skewing the base cinematics or gameplay levels. Additionally, each cinematic would receive the mix and asset updates as we polished the game – it was really the only way forward.
Finally, the game features an epic soundtrack from a 72-piece orchestra and a 60-person choir. With each scene filled to the brim with action, how did you go about balancing these orchestral pieces with the constant combat? Since composer Cris Velasco was also involved with the first Darksiders, did his work influence the sound design?
KB: First, I have to say, the tireless work Cris put in on the score is beyond compare. I truly appreciate everything that he did and was amazed each time he submitted a new track. We were very fortunate late in the development cycle to get the green light from Reinhard Pollice at THQ Nordic to record a good majority of it live. Cris also recorded some amazing solo performances along the way. One of my favorites was the game finale featuring Nicole Garcia on violin.
Darksiders III game finale track with violin solo
Once Cris was onboard, our initial conversations revolved around how we’d like to build on the Darksiders I themes and style, but more importantly, how we’d grow the music identity of the franchise. If you played Darksiders I you will certainly identify with the Darksiders theme and the Horseman’s theme, but it was important to us that Fury had her own identifiable theme and have that theme interleaved throughout the tracks in the game. One of the biggest changes on Darksiders III was the frequency of which the music played. We wanted to focus more on story beats and bosses, avoiding the wall-to-wall combat music. This provided a more dynamic approach for Fury’s battles against the Sins and additional weight to the cinematics.
One of the nice things working with Cris is the amount of collaboration he’s willing to do. Before we would start sound design for a boss or cinematic, we would have a chat discussing our ideas of how we were going to approach the sound design and he would give us his thoughts on the music approach. Sometimes his thoughts would trigger new ideas for our sound design. It made for a very relaxed work flow without any real surprises for either side. We felt that it also helped us free him from any directed approach and just allowed him to work his magic. Every now and then we would throw something crazy out like “hey, what do you think about a waltz?” but that was rare as one of our main goals was never to make him feel like he was boxed in.
It sounds like the whole team had a terrific time working on Darksiders III. Do you have any final thoughts about your experience?
Surround yourself as much as you can with people you enjoy working with as working on games isn’t always easy and it’s nice to have each other to lean on
KB: Reflecting back while answering these questions, I realize that I am fortunate that I have worked not only on great projects but more importantly to me with some great people! Surround yourself as much as you can with people you enjoy working with as working on games isn’t always easy and it’s nice to have each other to lean on through some of the crazier roller coaster moments of game development. Thank you for the opportunity to share a little glance into Gunfire Games and Darksiders III!
And thank you very much for speaking with us! For our readers, be sure check out Darksiders III for PC, PS4, and Xbox One on the Gunfire Games website , Twitter, and Facebook.
A big thanks to Kenneth Bassham for giving us a look at the epic sound of Darksiders III – and to Adriane Kuzminski for the interview!
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