Written by Jennifer Walden. Images courtesy of Ubisoft.
Ubisoft’s Far Cry 5 (released March 28th for Xbox One, PS4, and PC) is set in a small town in Montana where a group of cultist has taken over. The player, acting as a Deputy, is part of a task force sent to apprehend the cult’s leader, Joseph Seed. With help from the residents who have resisted the Seed cult, the player can overthrow the cult’s outposts and restore order to the town.
Far Cry 5’s award-winning audio director Tony Gronick at Ubisoft Montreal is no stranger to the franchise. He’s worked on four Far Cry titles so far. On Far Cry 4, he won the 2015 BAFTA Games Award for ‘Best Music’ (shared with composer Cliff Martinez and supervising music editor Jerome Angelot) and earned nominations for best sound at the 2015 MPSE Awards and the 2015 SXSW Gaming Awards. This time around, Gronick was able to be even more involved in the game sound process by coming on-board Far Cry 5 much earlier than he’s done on previous titles. Here, Gronick talks about how he used that time to help shape the game through sound, particularly in terms of the game’s score.
This is your fourth Far Cry title, correct? What were you excited about this time around? Was there a sonic aspect of the game that you couldn’t wait to get to work on?
Tony Gronick (TG): Yes, I’ve worked on Far Cry 3, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, Far Cry 4, and now Far Cry 5.
The two things that excited me about Far Cry 5 is that first, I got a chance to be part of the core team at conception. With other Far Cry games the audio team started just prior to production and needed to design the audio around the existing game design. Being part of the team at such an early stage allowed associate audio director Chris Ove and myself to experiment with systems and designs without the pressure of looming milestones. We also used this time to switch to Audiokinetic’s Wwise as our new audio tool.
Secondly, I knew this location. I spent time in Montana and neighboring states. I knew the people and the places and I knew the atmosphere.
In Far Cry 5, there’s said to be a renewed emphasis on melee combat. How did you use sound to help the combat feel close-quarters?
TG: Early in production, we decided to put an emphasis on Foley. We brought experienced Foley artist Tchae Measroch onto the project and taught him how to implement his own sounds. This worked great. He was able to see and hear what sounds worked and what needed a different approach. We had him do all of the weapon handling, both guns and melee weapons. The outcome of his presence increased the overall emphasis on immersion into the game.
For the melee weapons, sound designer Joh-Alexis Gelinas did most of the impact sounds and implementing. We did two recording sessions to create the sounds. First, we used pumpkins. We smashed them with baseball bats (aluminum and wood), shovels, hoes, wood sticks, and pipes. These recordings gave us a good resonance of body impacts.
Are there any other recordings that you captured for the game that you’d like to talk about?
TG: When I was young, my family had a cottage in Qu’Appelle Valley in Saskatchewan, which is just north of Montana. Here some of my favorite childhood memories occurred. So when I needed to record ambiences for the game I decided to revisit this old stomping ground of mine. I hadn’t been back in over 40 years. I took my son with me and we climbed to the top of the valley’s hills. We recorded open fields, captured sounds of grasshoppers and wheat gently blowing in the wind. We went down to the lake and recorded the sound of water hitting the dock and lapping on the beach. At night, we recorded the crickets. All the time I was telling him stories of when I was his age growing up in this environment. That day taught me an important lesson — my son doesn’t really care.
In previous Far Cry titles the player takes on the role of a set character, but in Far Cry 5 the player can create his or her own character. What did that mean for your team in terms of sound?
TG: The challenge that the audio department had with the ‘Character Creator’ feature is that the player can choose a character that is male or female. The dialogue lines that address a character’s gender needed to be duplicated. For example, we had about 600 gender-specific lines such as, “There she is.” And, “There he is.”
The bigger problem was recording lines in other languages. … Having the ability to play as either male or female in this game added almost 13,000 lines of extra dialogue.
In English, we could reduce the overall number of lines by using gender-neutral terms, such as “deputy” for the first person character. The bigger problem was recording lines in other languages. Using a term like “deputy” still needed to have a gender assigned to it. Having the ability to play as either male or female in this game added almost 13,000 lines of extra dialogue.
Offering the option to choose a character’s gender requires a lot of extra work. This game had over 100 actors, and roughly 86,000 lines of dialogue. When you start going through that, having to be gender specific, the lines can really add up quickly.
How many people on your team were helping you to wrangle all of this dialogue?
TG: In Montreal we had a team of three dialogue editors. Having someone at the recording sessions, making sure the lines are processed correctly, and making sure those lines are playing in the game correctly was a huge job. On top of that, we hired freelance voice directors. We worked with another studio in Toronto who handled the cinematics and they had a full-time dialogue person handling that.
One part of the dialogue we did differently was to have Phil Hunter (one of our senior audio team members) embed himself into the AI department and work closely with them to help design the ‘bark’ tree for our game. This worked great and we were able to get accurate line counts very early in the production. (A ‘bark’ is an NPC call-out that is used to indicate their location to the player.)
Far Cry 5 is set in fictitious Hope County, Montana. What does Hope County sound like?
TG: Hope County sounds like Middle America. We tried to make the ambience and even the dialect as realistic as possible. When it came to the games’ barks, we hired writers who spent time in Montana. We also hired an accent coach to work with the hundred plus actors on the roughly 68,000 lines of dialogue.
For the ambiences, the game is divided into three regions. Each region has a different landscape and sound. We have the open field and farmlands. There’s the mountains and forest area. The third region is Faith’s area. This area deals more with mind manipulation through brainwashing and drugs. In addition to the effects, the separation of these regions also happens musically.
One of the things we did for Faith’s area was to make it feel like the idealistic 50s-America that’s portrayed in TV shows like Leave it to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show. We painted this area with music from the 50s and 60s so that when you are walking around you’ll hear “Teen Angel” or doo-wop bands playing in the wind. It’s just kind of there and yet not there. You almost have to stop walking to hear it. It gives the area a creepy, eerie feeling.
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The game world is said to be responsive to the player’s actions. So, if a player clears an outpost of cultists, then the civilians will move back in. In terms of sound, how did you approach the game world? How does the sound adapt to the player’s actions against the cult?
You know where the cult is because of the cult hymns and music.
TG:You know where the cult is because of the cult hymns and music. They are inspired by this music and they have it playing everywhere. It plays off the car radios. When they take an area and set up an outpost, they put up speakers or they bring in a truck with speakers so their music can be heard. So when you hear the hymns you know that the cult is still around. As a player removes the cult from an area, the music is also removed. In the case of outposts, the cult music is replaced with American music or radio music. You know the cult is gone because there is a lack of cult hymns.
The game also has a “Resistance Meter.” The more damage to the cult a player does in an area, the more the “Resistance Meter” goes up. As the “Resistance Meter” goes up, the people in that area are more likely to fight with the player against the cult. You’ll hear a lot more skirmishes happening around you that you have no part of. You’re just seeing them in the distance and you can run up and help if you want.
I experimented with having the ambience sound darker or not hearing birds but it didn’t seem right. This is a beautiful area. The cult is trying to reap and pillage the land. They have just started doing it and so they haven’t had much effect on the land yet. So I kept the ambiences beautiful and rich, and on top of that I added beautiful sounding cult music. But there’s a darkness to the cult music as well.
Let’s talk about that cult music. The game’s score features ‘hymn-like gospel music’ with lyrics that reinforce the teaching of the Seed cult. How did you develop this feature of the score with composer Dan Romer? Can you talk about your direction and collaboration on the score?
Music changed the entire outlook of the game. … it made the cult’s actions feel like they did these things because they knew better than everyone else; they were saving the lost souls.
TG: I started work on this game at a very early stage. Before Dan Romer joined as the composer, I was trying to experiment a little with music. As I was watching and playing the game in the early stages, it didn’t make any sense to me that these religious cultists were taking and killing livestock and burning down houses, kidnapping and committing murder. It felt a little strange to me, having a religion acting this violent. However when I started experimenting with music, I found that putting traditional hymns up against these actions changed the way that I looked at it. The traditional hymns made it feel like these people were doing the actions of “The Father” (as the leader of the Seed cult is called). Music changed the entire outlook of the game. Instead of it feeling like these people were murders and thieves, it made the cult’s actions feel like they did these things because they knew better than everyone else; they were saving the lost souls.
I didn’t want this to feel like it was a Christian cult. I wanted to avoid traditional Christian hymns. So I decided that we needed to have our own music for this cult and we went searching for a composer that could also write songs.
I had been searching for a composer for months and one day I was watching Netflix and I saw this movie Beasts of the Southern Wild. The music was so beautiful and inspirational, but it didn’t sound like a Far Cry soundtrack, which usually has a darker more electronic feel. Then Chris Ove came to me a week later and said he saw Beasts of No Nation and the soundtrack for that movie had sounded like a Far Cry soundtrack. I listened to that and lo and behold it was the same composer for both — composer Dan Romer.
We took two pieces of music, one from each film, that were in the same key and combined them. As soon as I heard that, I knew that this was what I was looking for. It was inspirational but had a darkness at the same time.
I looked into Dan Romer and saw that he was also a producer and a songwriter, and that he had played in bluegrass/country bands in college. He just ticked off every box we were looking for. We contacted him and he came up to Montreal. He loved the project and he loved the idea of the hymns. This was going to be his first video game and I’m not sure he understood how much work he was getting himself into.
Dan Romer met with Dan Hay (the creative director on Far Cry 5) during the meeting Dan Romer was given “The Father’s” manifesto, which is a collection of the cult’s teachings. Romer read it and picked and chose different lines to act as inspiration for the hymns. We decided that there should be 10 hymns and Dan Romer returned to California to start writing. Now I would like to say there was a lot of back and forth on these hymns but Dan Romer nailed them all on his first try. He really out did himself and as the songs rolled in my smile got bigger and bigger.
Many of these hymns have double meanings. If you heard these songs without knowing the cult they have one meaning, but as you become more familiar with the cult’s beliefs the songs take on a very different meaning. For example, there is a song called “Help Me Faith” The lyrics go, “Help me Faith, help me Faith, shield me from sorrow, from fear of tomorrow. Help me Faith, help me Faith, shield me from sadness, from worry and madness, lead me to the place.”
It’s a beautiful song until you find out that “Faith” is the name of The Father’s sister. Faith uses drugs and mind control to bring people into the cult. Knowing this gives the song a little more sinister feel to it. Now it sounds like someone wanting to get his or her fix.
Each region is controlled by a different family member of The Father. There’s Jacob, John, and Faith. Each one of them has a different interpretation of these hymns. The hymns are the same — same melody and same lyrics, but it’s performed completely different. So in Jacob’s area, Dan Romer did bluegrass versions of these hymns, using well-known singers.
Then in John’s area we have this beautiful Nashville choir that we recorded.
It’s very inspiring and sounds beautiful.
In Faith’s region, we hired a post-rock band called Hammock.
They did their renditions using the Nashville choir but they added guitars and manipulated the reverbs. It has a post-rock, psychedelic feel to it. These hymns play a big part in selling the sound of each region.
That stealth music will be in the same key as the hymn. They’ll play on top of each other.
Then on top of those hymns, as a player gets closer to an outpost they’ll hear the sermons done by whoever owns that area. So if it’s Faith’s region, you’ll hear Faith giving a sermon. That combined with these hymns gives an eerie feel. It makes the outpost feel like there is a lot of activity going on. If the player gets even closer to the outpost, than a stealth music track will kick in. That stealth music will be in the same key as the hymn. They’ll play on top of each other. I know that sounds confusing but because there is so much reverb on the hymns, it actually works really well. If the player engages in action, then an action music track will take over for the stealth music. We dip the hymns a little bit underneath the action music, but we don’t get rid of it completely.
So let’s say a player enters an outpost area and Hymn #3 is playing, then the corresponding piece of stealth music and action music will play with that. If the player dies and comes back and tries to take the same outpost, a completely different hymn will be playing and so the stealth music and action music will correspond to that new hymn. If you’re not a good player (like myself), you won’t be hearing the same piece of music repeatedly. You will be hearing a different track every time you redo the outpost.
There are ten hymns, and each regions’ hymns sound different, so that’s 30 tracks. On top of that, sprinkled out amongst the world there are cult members with acoustic guitars playing the hymns as well. There are 40 renditions of these hymns.
What was your biggest challenge in creating the sound of Far Cry 5?
The cult is driven and inspired by the hymns, and the player is driven by the stealth or action music.
TG: The music was one of the harder things to figure out on this game. Games are becoming more and more realistic. Sometimes people forget that it is art as well. There’s a lot of question about music playing in games in general and it got me thinking that we need to have more of a reason to have music in a game. For Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 4, the music covered when a player was sneaking around, when they were in action, or when there’s no one around. Music was basically telling the first person player what emotions they should be feeling. However in Far Cry 5, we tackled it a little differently. We still did what the other games do but we also have the music telling the player how the cult (enemy) is feeling. The cult is driven and inspired by the hymns, and the player is driven by the stealth or action music.
What are you most proud of in terms of sound on Far Cry 5?
TG: One of the things that I did in this game that I think really anchors the world is the cultists sing along with the hymns. In games, when a player is sneaking up on an NPC, you hear a bark, a line like, “I hope my shift is over pretty soon.” Or, “I wonder what time it is?” These let the player know the location of the NPC or enemy. For Far Cry 5, I tried to reduce the amount of these lines by having the NPCs sing to the chorus of the hymns playing off the loud speakers. By doing this we are giving the feeling that the cult members are being inspired by this music and that they aren’t there begrudgingly; they’re doing The Father’s work. It worked so well in places and I hope to push it further in upcoming games.
A big thanks to Tony Gronick for giving us a look at the creative vision behind the sound of Far Cry 5 – and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!
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