For Honor audio director Nicholas Duveau, at Ubisoft Montreal, discusses their approach to crafting authentic weapon sounds and recording native-language vocalizations for each class of character. To win a fight, a player must eliminate their opponent using a signature execution move. Duveau share details on how they made that move feel more powerful. He also talks about field recording, Foley, and more!
Interview by Jennifer Walden, images courtesy of Ubisoft
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Hi Nicholas, can you introduce yourself and the members of your sound team on For Honor?
Nicholas Duveau (ND): My name is Nicholas Duveau, Audio Director on For Honor. Over the course of the last three years, there have been numerous people involved in the audio of For Honor. The core team was comprised of Martin Lemieux, Olivier Ramirez-Lussier, Hugo Bastien, Yves Breton, and Florent Perrin covering the main audio creation and systems implementation for both gameplay content and cinematics.
We had support from additional audio designers in the last months of the production, namely Jerome Angelot, Francois-Xavier Bilodeau, and Mario Rodrigue. We had a team of four designers: David Noel, Carl Bramucci, David Bridet, and Grégoire Lucas Monteil, who were dedicated to the management and implementation of all the voiceovers.
We also collaborated with our sister studio in Quebec City, where they handled about half of the campaign missions. Their audio team was comprised of Alexandre Fortier, Antoine Guertin, Emily Laliberté, Christian Pacaud, and was led by Arnaud Libeyre.
Not to be forgotten are our two sound programmers Simon St-Gelais and Martin Samuel.
Overall, what sort of sound were you going for in For Honor?
ND: From the early stages of conception, even before we could experience the combat in its first playable form, we knew that this game’s immersion ambition was not only aiming for a visceral depiction of historical authenticity, but also had to be true to the common feedback rules of fighting games. We had to make sure the audio served two roles: believability, and understanding.
We had to make sure the audio served two roles: believability, and understanding
What if we knew magic and could obtain recordings captured by boom microphones of an actual battle during the Middle Ages? In what level of rage would these warriors be? Believability is not only a matter of accuracy, of everything sounding right; it has to transcend emotions as well.
We wanted to demonstrate that armed melee combat is, or can be, way more daunting than long-range gun battles. So it was obvious that the “star” element of this game, from both a sound creation and mix standpoint, had to be everything related to the weapons and the characters wielding them.
The fight sounds also needed to convey information to the players. That feedback is essential to understand what just happened and what will happen. Our fight system is based on momentum. The sound needs to help players instinctively identify the right moment to act.
There are three different factions of warriors: the Knights, the Samurai, and the Vikings. What are the sound characteristics of each faction? What are some of the key distinctions you make with sound?
ND: For all the characters, regardless of their faction, we first defined and produced the realistic layer of their entire move set based on the characteristics of their armor and the accessories they are wearing. Through extensive Foley recording sessions, we played with multiple materials and textures to find the right combination of elements to give the right presence and weight to the characters.
The idea was for the players to actually be able recognize each of the heroes through audio signature-elements they generate
Characterization of the heroes was defined on a case by case basis. For each character we looked for unique elements that made them stand out from the others. We were inspired by the weapon they used, their physical attributes, size and weight, their move set, their cultural heritage, movie references or even the common fantasy of these characters. The idea was for the players to actually be able recognize each of the heroes through audio signature-elements they generate.
Each faction also has their own native language. In specific battle scenarios, you can hear the Knights speak in Latin, the Vikings in Icelandic, and the Samurai in Japanese.
How did you handle sound for the different environments? Are they audible during battle? Or does music take over in the mix?
ND: In the campaign, the music operates as a storytelling function, so it does have a stronger presence in the mix. The nature of the missions provides plenty of breathing opportunities, where the player needs to navigate or accomplish a specific task between the multiple encounters and fights. At those times, the environments become more present. All of this is managed dynamically using mixed presets, like snapshots that are applied in specific moments or locations during the missions.
On the multiplayer side (PvP), things are approached differently. Music becomes more like rhythmic support for the gameplay and provides feedback of the multiple game mode phases and statuses. The fight and the player’s actions are always at the forefront of the mix.
For the attack sounds, do you break those down into separate elements? How did you build the libraries for each part of the attack?
ND: We separated sound elements into those generated by the attacker versus the ones generated by the victim/target. This approach gave us total control over what combination of sounds was to be triggered for weapon (attack) versus armor (impact) contacts, a hit and weapon (attack) versus weapon (block or attack), a block or a simultaneous attack.
This approach gave us total control over what combination of sounds was to be triggered
We also created additional layers of audio feedback to some events, like for the blocks. Since momentum is an important aspect of the fight system, knowing if your opponent did a full or a weak block would be the indicator of momentum for a counter attack or a successful combo progression.
The drawback of this approach is the huge amount of sounds we had to create. They all have been built from original material we recorded during our field recording sessions and some complementing studio Foley sessions.
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What was your approach to the blood and gore sounds?
ND: I think the most challenging part of defining the aesthetics of the gore was to define the limits of the perceptible brutality we wanted to convey without glorifying it. I’ve mentioned earlier the importance of the close-perspective of the combat in For Honor. We decided to avoid the “violence as a pleasure or as a reward” treatment. Of course you can hear slicing, breaking, smashing, and sometimes bleeding, but we made sure these sound elements were as equally balanced as the rest of the combat sound elements. They support the realistic level of the combat experience, while also providing the needed feedback of an attack being a hit or a miss.
For the ‘execution moves,’ does each character have its own two unique executions? Do those executions sound distinct from other powerful attacks?
ND: Absolutely. The executions are probably the sets of movements that have the most complex sound arrangements. We wanted them to be spectacular, to really stand out in the mix.
We first covered the visible movements and impacts based on the animations and visual affects applied. All manipulations, displacement, grabs, impacts, gore elements, and body falls are edited and mixed in stereo on the animations. Vocal grunts also have been specifically performed by all the actors and edited for each of the executions.
The executions are probably the sets of movements that have the most complex sound arrangements. We wanted them to be spectacular, to really stand out in the mix
We then create an enhancement layer of the overall choreography (what we call sweetening) using whooshes, specially designed impact sound elements, filters and other impact enhancers in multichannel stereo (4.1). The subwoofer channel is there to support the weight and to exaggerate the impacts.
Those two audio elements (one in stereo and the other in 4.1) are triggered simultaneously. It has to be noted that only the stereo layer is replicated to everyone. The multichannel layer is only audible to the player.
Any fun field recordings? What did you record, where did you record it, and what mics and recorders did you use to capture the sounds?
ND: For some of my previous projects, I experienced live outdoor recordings of ambiences, guns and explosives. It has always been clear in my mind that, when the conditions are right, recording source material in a live environment can give you the most pure and sometimes unique sounding elements that are just so difficult to reproduce. Even with the insane amount of great plug-ins that are available for us to sculpt our source material, working with something that already has that natural color and perspective you are looking for makes our work not only a bit (just a bit) easier, but so much more pleasant.
So we emptied most of our Foley prop room of anything that we could hit things on and hit things with; we commissioned a blacksmith to make real forged swords, helmets and shields; we bought some fireworks and drove out far into the northern forests to settle down in an isolated cabin. It was early April, still a bit cold but it was right at the end of winter so nature was not awake yet. It was dead silent.
We commissioned a blacksmith to make real forged swords, helmets and shields; we bought some fireworks and drove out far into the northern forests to settle down in an isolated cabin
We did lots of recordings during the day and in the middle of the night, hitting swords, steel rods and many other things, and switching locations to gather various reflections and reverberation.
I mentioned fireworks. When I can, I always record fireworks when location recording. These huge natural slapping sounds are always useful, and if we are lucky, the clouds are dense and low for more slap and delay sounds.
The mic we relied on the most and with which we got the best close-up results was the Electro-Voice RE20. Its large diaphragm made it respond to high sound pressure level nicely. We also got clean high frequency content without any noticeable distortion. We also used two shotgun mics, Sennheiser’s MKH416, and the Neumann KMR81.
Perspective mics we used were the VP88 stereo condenser, the Rhode NT4 stereo condenser, and a Sony D50.
Everything was captured using Sound Devices recorders and mixers.
A video featuring 16 minutes of in-game footage
For Honor uses the AnvilNext game engine. Was it a good fit for the sound team?
ND: Anvil, like all game engines, is our window to the game world. Before we actually start creating the audio content, it is where we make every initial decision regarding how the entire environmental audio content will be constructed. Our interactions with this tool have been massive. It is how we place and give perspective to every produced sound.
Most of everything we needed was already available in the toolset of Anvil. It already provided powerful means of defining ambience and reverb zones, through bitmap painting or complex-shaped volumes. We worked with the sound programmers to build a system enabling us to attach sound emitters to generated particles — i.e. arrows, fire projectiles, etc.
Any audio tools, plug-ins or processing techniques that were particularly useful for designing the sound on For Honor?
ND: I would say one of the most useful and creative tools we got to use extensively was Whoosh by Melted Sounds. It is a plug-in used within Native Instrument’s Reaktor to do what we can call “Motion Design” — using Doppler and chains of filters and effects to create movement.
I would say one of the most useful and creative tools we got to use extensively was Whoosh by Melted Sounds
We did a “live-record” of lots of whooshes using poles and sticks of different material and length. But this plug-in turned out to be very useful to sculpt most of the weapons’ signature movement layers.
What were your favorite sounds to design? Can you share specifics on how you designed them?
ND: I would definitely say the weapons sounds. With the large variety of weapons we have in For Honor, we had true creative opportunities to make them very distinct and give them a true signature. These are the elements on which we spent the longest time and iterated the most.
I mentioned earlier that the weapons were the “star” of the game as far as sound is concerned; they had to be the most fascinating elements to produce.
Creatively, what was the most challenging aspect of the sound on For Honor? Why? What was your solution?
ND: Again, the weapons. Producing a massive quantity of specific assets for a very large variety of weapons was a great challenge. We also had to address potential hearing fatigue for the players who could spend hours playing this game, and also for us, who spent hours in isolated rooms creating and polishing each individual resonating sword hit sound. That was a true physical challenge.
Technically, what was the most challenging aspect of sound? What was your solution?
ND: If that question was asked 15 years ago, I would have said fitting everything into the allocated memory, without a doubt. Now that it is not a real issue for all the departments, I would say today’s greatest challenge is keeping up with all of the other department’s content ambition. We are all glad that today’s consoles give us more RAM and hard drive space and more computing power, but more of everything literally means more of everything. So the real challenge today has to be one of management and communication.
I would say today’s greatest challenge is keeping up with all of the other department’s content ambition
Fortunately, we could count on a solid team of managers and coordinators that were ensuring that everything was tracked so we could refer to their updated status as often as we required. Obviously things change and by definition, these changes are meant to make the game better. So knowing about these changes in time means that we get to say “no” less often. Which is always a good thing.
What are you most proud of in terms of the sound for the game?
ND: Without a doubt, the weapons’ sounds. I do think that we have achieved a great level of artistic realism in how the combat sound choreography performs. In everything we do, we always try to be as accurate and authentic as possible. If you close your eyes and can say that what you hear totally makes sense rhythmically, in its perspective and its dynamics, then it means that we nailed it. If you also can say that you were emotionally involved in any way through what you heard, well, it then means that we nailed it even more.
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