Written by Jennifer Walden, images courtesy of Bethesda
The official launch trailer for Dishonored 2
Arkane Studios revisits their award-winning stealthy action game Dishonored with the release of Dishonored 2, available now for PS4, Xbox One, and PC. The story line is set 15 years after the first game, so the world still has the same vibe in terms of culture and technological advancements. In the sequel, players can choose to play as the assassin Corvo, the protagonist of the first game, or as Emily, the Empress of Dunwall, who has spent the past years training with Corvo and learning his assassin arts. As with the first game, stealth is a characteristic feature of the gameplay and players can even beat Dishonored 2 with all non-lethal maneuvers.
Designing a sequel to a successful game franchise — now that’s a daunting task. Mess too much with what’s been established and you risk annoying your legion of faithful followers. Change too little, and the sequel feels stale. That was the challenge faced by the team on Dishonored 2. The sound team, led by Arkane Studios’ Audio Lead Thomas Mitton, discusses their approach to improving upon their audio design for Dishonored. Find out how they took advantage of their new Void game engine, how they designed sounds for new player abilities and new locations, and how they improved immersion through sound.
Who are the members of the sound team on Dishonored 2?
Thomas Mitton (aka Tom): I’m the Audio Lead at Arkane Studios. I started working at the French company Etranges Libellules (ELB) in 2004. I’ve worked there on games such as Asterix XXL2, Asterix & the Olympic Games, Arthur and the Invisibles, Alice in Wonderland, How to Train Your Dragon, and Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon. From 2007, I also worked on other projects on the side, such as the cut-scenes for Alone in the Dark, developed by Eden Games, and projects developed at Arkane that got cancelled (i.e. The Crossing, Return to Ravenholm). I joined Arkane in 2010 to work on Dishonored full-time.
Because Dishonored 2 was such a challenge and an even more ambitious game than the first installment, we asked Frederic Devanlay (aka Fred) to provide us with the thousands of audio sources we needed; this way I could spend less time on sound design and focus more on the overall audio direction and implementation. Fred is the director of Big Wheels Studio and co-founder of Red libraries. He’s been working as a sound designer on video games since 1996. He was involved in the making of more than 60 games, including titles such as Far Cry, Life is Strange, Splinter Cell, Ghost Recon, Remember Me, Dark Messiah of Might & Magic, and Watch Dogs.
There is also Fabrice Fournet (aka Fab), our audio programmer. He started working on video games at Eden Games in 2007 on Alone in the Dark, but mostly in QA-testing and data management. Then he switched to an engine programmer position on Test Drive Unlimited 2. He joined Arkane Studios as a tech programmer on Dishonored, and he’s still here with us today!
Our audio producer Arnaud David was responsible for coordinating the common effort and making sure we’d hit the deadlines. He was also in charge of voiceovers — from talent acquisition through external vendors (Blindlight for the English version of the game) to localization and file integration. Arnaud has been working as a producer at Arkane since the very beginning of Dishonored, and as a bass player he also has a special interest in music and audio engineering. He’s been recording and producing music on the side as a hobby.
Last, but not least, Daniel Licht (aka Dan) again composed the original soundtrack to the sequel. He became famous as a composer for the TV show Dexter, but even before that his track record was already quite impressive and included some Silent Hill video games, and good old horror movies, such as the Children of the Corn and the Hellraiser series. Dan has a unique sense of composition, especially the way he uses strings — maybe due to his jazz musician background. This really became part of the Dishonored brand, and he was instrumental in nailing down the specific mood of the city of Karnaca.
Were you able to carry any sounds over from Dishonored to Dishonored 2?
TM: Only a few sounds were taken as-is from the first game, such as Corvo’s Blink effect. It’s a sound I really enjoyed shaping, and I think a sound that players like. Of course, it is used a lot in-game, so I needed to find something that sounded cool and that you could bear hearing repeatedly. Sounding good is not enough, especially if you’re fed up already after hearing it 20 times.
In fact, we worked really hard at making sure we had enough variety for the same sound so it doesn’t feel like it repeats over and over. We gave that same attention to pretty much everything, from a simple impact effect to opening a drawer or casting a power. We have at least 3 variations, but it can be as high as 10, or even 15, for one sound. Sometimes it’s very subtle, but as long as players don’t get tired, it means that it works.
With Dishonored, I discovered too late that the ‘Dark Vision’ power was used way too early in the game, and too often by most players. … The sound itself worked well, but over the long term it became annoying because it is too loud and aggressive. … That’s why the new ‘Dark Vision’ sound is way more ethereal.
There were sounds we absolutely wanted to change and improve. With Dishonored, I discovered too late that the ‘Dark Vision’ power was used way too early in the game, and too often by most players. It only required a single rune to be unlocked, which is cheaper than other powers, and all those who wanted to try something other than Blink bought it at the very beginning of the game. The sound itself worked well, but over the long term it became annoying because it is too loud and aggressive… this is all about balance and mixing. That’s why the new ‘Dark Vision’ sound is way more ethereal.
The effects for the sword being drawn and sheathed were also re-made. It’s completely subjective, but I was fed up with the old ones.
Arnaud David (AD): Also, in the Dunwall section at the beginning of Dishonored 2 we mostly re-used music from the first game. Since Dan [Licht] sent us all of his stems, we could mix them the way we wanted. The result feels like Dunwall without sounding exactly the same, despite using content largely recycled from Dishonored.
How the city of Karnaca was designed
Dishonored 2 uses Arkane’s internal “Void” engine, instead of Unreal Engine 3, which was used on the first Dishonored. The new engine has “improved post-processing for lighting and visuals.” Were there any improved post-processing features for game audio?
AD: Well, building an engine almost from scratch is a challenge in itself. Our primary goal was to make sure we’d get the capacity to do at least as well as we did for the first game. So the first step was to implement Audiokinetic Wwise, the audio middleware we already used for Dishonored. Then we added some custom tools that we also had before, such as a music manager that allows us to dynamically adapt music to gameplay, and a real-time sound propagation system based on manually edited volumes. And finally, we looked at what we could improve: better surround sound for multiple speaker setups and a bigger variety and realism for impacts and footsteps. Fab can probably tell us more about this…
Fabrice Fournet (FF): Among other things, Dishonored 2 can now apply multiple environmental effects, such as reverberation per audio source. These effects are stacked up by analyzing the audio environment each source has to go through before reaching the listener.
We also designed a new contact system for this sequel that modulates sounds depending on the energy and velocity of 2 colliding objects
In the first Dishonored we did something similar but much simpler where we just applied effects depending on the player character’s position in the world.
We also designed a new contact system for this sequel that modulates sounds depending on the energy and velocity of 2 colliding objects. For example, if you pick up a bottle and let it fall from 1 cm, then 50 cm, then 2 meters… each time you’ll get a different result, but it’s still consistent with the height of the drop.
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What were some unique challenges for sound on Dishonored 2?
TM: On Dishonored the main challenge was to create a unique and distinctive soundscape that, just like the visuals, avoided a hyperrealistic style, but without falling into the “traditional fantasy” trap. We needed to find a middle ground so that the player felt like they were exploring a familiar yet alien world, while transposing the decadent beauty of Dunwall into sound.
Just like Dunwall, it becomes a whole new character, and it required many iterations to give it an identity of its own while being faithful to the previous game.
Karnaca is a very different city that feels more based on our own Mediterranean or Cuban cultures. But as you progress through the game, you quickly see that it’s tainted. Just like Dunwall, it becomes a whole new character, and it required many iterations to give it an identity of its own while being faithful to the previous game.
Frederic Devanlay (FD): It’s always a great challenge to follow a big success such as Dishonored. So, to me, the real challenge was, “How can we do better on Dishonored 2?” The world being rich and deep helps a lot with being creative. Also, Arnaud and Tom were always available to help and provide me with more pictures or footage, so that I could really get a sense of the background and story that they knew very well.
We had a lot of exchanges and discussions along the way, with a constant stream of proposals from my side. We tried to meet at Arkane’s office about once a month to discuss the latest deliveries and review all the sound implemented in the game engine so far. It allowed us to fix or enrich the audio base in an iterative way.
FF: As Arnaud stated before, on the code side we almost started from scratch because we switched to our own engine. So the integration of a middleware in an entirely new environment that must comply with our very specific needs, while understanding what we could and couldn’t do on the new consoles, was definitely a challenge.
Having an engine able to process all the data simultaneously in a systemic environment with proper rendering without compromising anything else was a very demanding task.
The sound design of Dishonored has one great strength: the diversity of the sounds and tones that bring a lot of depth and detail to the world. Having an engine able to process all the data simultaneously in a systemic environment with proper rendering without compromising anything else was a very demanding task.
AD: I couldn’t agree more. The very reason why our games are so unique is their very systemic nature, and that’s also what makes our job even more challenging. We have almost no control over what players will do, and yet, everything always has to sound good.
A great example is we have several locations in the game where we wanted the player to overhear conversations through doors or walls, but because we try to simulate everything, audio propagation works the same in both directions. If the player can hear NPCs, then the NPCs can hear the player walking and spot them as well, which can be extremely frustrating from the player’s perspective. That’s the kind of problem we constantly need to solve! As Fab said, this is a very demanding goal to achieve.
What were some of the most challenging sounds to get right for Dishonored 2?
FD: Transposing into audio the amazing sense of detail found in the game’s objects, ranging from a simple wristwatch to a cake or the complex mechanisms of the Clockwork Mansion. I recorded a lot of mechanisms of various sizes and shapes — containers, cogs, chains, wooden furniture… I also had to record a lot of objects falling or breaking, like an apple, tableware, crates, lamps, etc.
AD: Wow, I’m not even sure I heard a quarter of all this. Fred, please tell me, how does a cake sound!?
TM: In Dishonored we had I think less than 10 physically simulated objects. In Dishonored 2, we have roughly 200. To make sure nothing sounded too generic, we had to produce numerous variations that sounded as close as possible to the visual assets. It is the same for interactive items, which are much more numerous in this sequel.
When walking up the stairs, the player character pushes more on the tip of their feet, climbing 4 steps by 4 steps, and you get to hear more of the gear and clothing. When walking down, they put more weight on the heels, and take every step.
Among the small things we improved, we created specific footsteps for when the player walks on stairs, and they don’t sound the same as when walking on another surface: when walking up the stairs, the player character pushes more on the tip of their feet, climbing 4 steps by 4 steps, and you get to hear more of the gear and clothing. When walking down, they put more weight on the heels, and take every step. This is the level of detail we could look into to improve the immersion.
In terms of implementation, one of the biggest challenges lies in the fact that all powers can be combined together, so there’s an amazing amount of possibilities, and as many issues to fix. By the way, just like with the first game 4 years ago, we keep finding footage of players triggering incredible combinations that we didn’t even think of.
There are several abilities a character has, such as Dark Vision, Blink, Devouring Swarm, Possession, and Bend Time. What are the character abilities in Dishonored 2, and can you share specific details on how you created the sounds associated with these abilities?
TM: When working on such a project, you have to keep in mind that Dishonored is a stealth game. So you need to make a clear distinction between the colors you’ll associate with the various capabilities. On one side you have the powers meant to help players move discreetly through the levels, such as Mesmerize, Possession, or Shadow Walk. On the other side, you have weapons, sword combat, or less subtle powers such as Devouring Swarm or Wind Blast. If a player wants to be sneaky, we try really hard to make them feel like they’re a shadow, but if things escalate then the situation quickly becomes chaotic, violent, and stressful. The audio spectrum must be very rich for the experience to remain immersive.
FD: Yeah, you need to ask yourself, “What is this power about? What texture is it made of (windy? dusty? etc.)? How powerful or sneaky is it supposed to be?” As an example, for Dark Vision I used a mix of unintelligible and ethereal voices and wind, giving it a sense of space and movement, and a deep low end layer for a dark and powerful feeling.
Another example is Far Reach, which is made of various textures with a much more organic feel, such as lianas (vines), rope fibers, and tree bark sounds mixed with slightly percussive elements to improve the feeling of fast movement and target impact.
The world has a gaslamp fantasy/steampunk vibe. How did you support that in terms of sound?
Even if it’s easy to make the connection with a Victorian steampunk setting, Dunwall and Karnaca should rather be regarded as port cities in the end — with boats, dock workers, and fishermen. Everything there has more of an organic feel in spite of the advanced technology.
TM: Internally, we use the term “Whalepunk.” The main source of energy powering Dunwall is extracted from whale oil. Even if it’s easy to make the connection with a Victorian steampunk setting, Dunwall and Karnaca should rather be regarded as port cities in the end — with boats, dock workers, and fishermen. Everything there has more of an organic feel in spite of the advanced technology. Even if whale oil is still present, Karnaca is mostly wind-powered, so maybe we should say “Windpunk”? :D
AD: Haha, I’m not sure “Windpunk” will become a thing! But we used much more wind-based sounds than in the previous game, that’s for sure. You can hear it in the music as well; there’s more of an ethereal feel to it with all those airy layers.
FD: Also, there are loads of metal and wood noises that can be heard in the ambient soundscapes, which helps retain the noble aspect of those materials while enforcing the various moods, such as of a city in decay at times, or rich and full of life at other times. Besides realistic ambient tones, many drone layers were added up to reinforce the atmosphere.
Dishonored 2 Composer Daniel Licht shows how the game’s trailer music was done
Can you tell me about the sound of Dunwall? How does the sound for the city of Karnaca differ?
TM: We really wanted to make Karnaca more of a living city, with numerous voices and noises that can be heard in distant backstreets; it’s supposed to be an inhabited city this time, filled with denizens, workers, and beggars.
I asked Fred to work on cries for birds and other animals that don’t even exist in our world
The city is also surrounded by a huge, impenetrable jungle-like forest, which adds to the mood and mystery. For instance, I asked Fred to work on cries for birds and other animals that don’t even exist in our world.
In comparison, Dunwall is much sharper and colder; metal is omnipresent there. It covers numerous structures.
As I said before, even if technology can be found in Karnaca, there is a finer, more organic feel to it. Wood is a raw material that can be found throughout the entire city, indoors as well as outdoors (roofs, street blockers…). The sea is also an important aspect, just like the wind. That really gives a distinct identity to this new location.
FD: In short, I’d say Karnaca required wide, breathing spaces with wind and the sound of the sea, but still hot and bathed in sunlight. On the other hand, Dunwall is more urban with its narrow backstreets and acoustic reflection.
How did you handle Foley on the game? What were some highlights for Foley?
FD: The entire Foley work and footsteps recording were done in my studio. An important thing for us was to make a clear distinction between Corvo’s gait and equipment, and Emily’s, so that players felt the difference as much as possible. Foley for the characters’ animation was recorded in the studio, in sync with videos provided by Tom and Arnaud.
TM: Yes, even if we didn’t go for a full body awareness approach in terms of visuals and animation, it is key to a game like ours to fully support it on the audio side.
Did you capture any field recordings? Where did you go, what did you capture, and how did you capture it (mics? portable recorders?)?
FD: Some soundscapes were recorded in underground locations – i.e. parking garage for room-tones, while some others were recorded on roofs for wind gusts, or in parks, in workshops, and even at night in the small streets of Paris to capture a lighter “active city” feel. I recycled a few soundscapes that I recorded a while ago in South Africa and in Italy for quieter acoustic atmospheres. Actors also helped me for screams and various human noises.
When it comes down to the hardware, I mainly use two portable recorders: a Sound Devices 744T and a Tascam HD-P2. In the studio, I work on a MicroMix EAA console. I have a set of various microphones, but I mostly use a Barcus Berry contact mic, a DPA d:screet SC4060, a Sennheiser MD441, a Schoeps MS CMC couple, a Neumann KMR 82i, and another couple of Neumann KM 184s.
AD: We do much less recording in-house, mostly for drones or whispers. Since 2013 we have a small studio within Arkane offices as well, and we have a few mics in there, such as a DPA 4090, a Sennheiser MKH 8060, and an Audio Technica AT2020. In fact, Tom spends most of his time with an Arturia Keylab 88 straight into Kontakt 5, using various libraries. And whatever source we record from, it goes through a Roland Studio Capture audio interface.
In terms of the sound overall, is there anything players should keep their ears open for — any sonic moments you’re particularly happy about?
TM: Clockwork Soldiers; mechanical transformations in Jindosh’s Clockwork Mansion; contrasting effect between the various soundscapes while travelling back and forth in time in A Crack in the Slab; the Dreadful Wale ambient atmosphere; the docks in the Edge of the World; how quiet the Dust District streets above Karnaca are before a dust storm hits…
AD: The Overseer’s sermon in the Edge of the World streets; the whale-sounding guitars in the Void ethereal music; the street musicians, especially in the Dust District; the music during the very final encounter with Delilah. We really put a lot of effort everywhere, so just enjoy the whole package! :D
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