Here, they cover everything from monsters and dragons, intense combat and vocalizations, to custom field recordings, the technical implementation, useful tools - and the game's clever dynamic dialogue system:
Interview by Jennifer Walden. Images courtesy of Sony.
Just three days after its release, Sony Interactive Entertainment’s God of War (2018) sold over 3.1 million copies worldwide. Fans of the franchise snapped up the game and fell in love with it. It has a Metacritic score of 94, and Polygon’s review by Chris Plante rates it 10/10. And really, what’s not to love? God of War takes players on a compelling journey with tough-guy Kratos and his son Atreus who traverse the Norse wilds in order to spread the ashes of Atreus’s mother from the highest peak in Jotunheim.
Mike Niederquell, Sound Design Lead at PlayStation, takes us behind the sound of God of War. He talks about the challenges of creating unique creature sounds for a large variety of enemies, and shares details of what went into his favorite creature designs. He also talks about their approach to scale — how they made each enemy encounter feel big without having the minor monsters feel as huge as the Bosses. Niederquell has other sound designers on the team chime-in about their specific roles: Daniel Birczynski discusses the dragon design, Chris Clanin talks about Kratos, and Roel Sanchez goes into technical details about implementing the sounds.
In this world, everything is huge, particularly the creatures and monsters. What’s your strategy for scaling the creature/monster sounds (so that each encounter feels big, but overall, is appropriately sized and minor monsters don’t feel as huge as a Boss)?
Mike Niederquell (MN): Creature sound design is probably one of the hardest things we do. There are various ways you can approach this but one way that helped us sell the size of characters outside of increasing amplitude was being mindful of the channel count and sound emitter placement (i.e where sounds play from). All the smaller, humanoid characters, usually contained one sound emitter, located at their head. If they happened to have a weapon, like a sword, the swinging “whoosh” sounds would then play from the end of the sword. This would help us embellish the panning information. Sounds on the smaller characters would also typically be mono. If we did end up using stereo assets, they would usually collapse to mono fairly quickly based on the distance from the player. The overall distance in which the player can hear these smaller characters would generally be less than those larger ones. So keeping smaller characters to a more finite channel count and audible radius helped differentiate their size.
The Troll had sound emitters on its head, feet, torso, and hands. We also used upwards to six channels for certain sounds.
For larger cast members, like the Trolls, we utilized a larger channel count and had more sound emitters attached to the characters. So the Troll had sound emitters on its head, feet, torso, and hands. We also used upwards to six channels for certain sounds. For example, when a Troll drives it’s giant stone pillar into the ground, we use the surround channels to play exterior reports/echoes and the LFE for a custom low-end boost. Using most of the playback channels available to the player inherently makes the sound more noticeable, and often perceived as being larger.
In regards to aesthetics, we had some characters that had similarities. For example, we have wolves in the game but we also have Wulvers (huge werewolf creatures). What made this particularly challenging is that the wolves aren’t small. They are bigger than Kratos, who happens to be no small being! So we had to be conscious of that and make sure we noted the source we were pulling from. We didn’t want them to sound the same if the player happened to be fighting them both at once. Because the Wulver was more humanoid, this gave us an opportunity to leverage some human vocal performances and also incorporate more low-end into its design. This really helped to differentiate them and it made the Wulver’s feel slightly more intimidating.
As a final note, I think mixing helps a lot with these scenarios as well. We made an effort to mix out sounds from smaller cast members, or attacks that would deal less damage if something larger was happening. So if a Troll is about to throw a giant fireball at you, or it slams its pillar, we utilized side-chain compression to pull down less significant sounds that are currently playing.
There are over 13 different classes of monster/enemies, not including the bosses: For example, Draugr, Revenant, Brood, Legion, Nightmare, Reaver, the Shadow Warrior, Tatzelwurm, Traveler, Viken, Wolves, Wulver, Dark Elves, Hel-Walker, and more. That’s quite a variety! What was your favorite class to design sound for? What went into the sound?
MN: I think my favorite class was either the Traveler or Nightmare. I really enjoy games where you can hear enemies navigating towards you that aren’t performing any vocalized tells. When I saw the Traveler and all his plate mail armor I instantly got excited. I knew we were going to be able to sell him sonically through the weight of his armor. Another thing that really benefited the mix in regards to these characters is the player typically fights them alone or with very few additional enemies. With that, we could dial in the detail and have things like Foley sit in the mix easier.
Which monster/enemy sound went through the most evolution? Can you walk me through its progression?
MN: We indeed have a lot of creatures and characters in this game! The character that went through the most iteration was hands down the Draugr.
This was one of the first characters to come online so I was involved with the initial prototyping of what it should sound like. Initially, there was a lot of feedback from the team for them to not have any vocalizations. The reasoning behind this is because Draugrs spawn from the earth’s core, forged from the heat of lava, molding all their contents into one singular entity. This is why they look like bones, metal, and reclaimed earth. So given how they are created, the thought was that their vocal cords would be destroyed during that process. We decided to see what we could do by selling their “navigation” in the world, but because they don’t have a lot of hanging parts (their armor was all melted down and reformed with their body) it was a really hard sell. Eventually, we got approval to start a vocalization pass. I made an initial pass at the vocals, using my voice and pulling in fire source to sell the heat that burns inside them. After that first iteration I moved on to other portions of the game.
We eventually circled back on their vocalizations at a later date for an internal milestone. We needed more content for them so Jeff Darby helped embellish what was already there and provide support for more iterations. He incorporated sounds from cappuccino machines and other elements that also give off a sense of heat. After that, months passed and we were busy fleshing out the rest of the creatures.
Fast forward to our first E3 milestone, where combat with Draugrs would be heavily featured. During this milestone Erick Ocampo worked on them again. He helped sell the fleshy impacts when being struck with the axe, along with the sounds of them spawning. We were having trouble hearing when Draugrs were spawning because their vocalizations weren’t diverse enough given the scenario’s context.
The blessing is you get more time with it, the curse is you can fall into the trap of never finishing.
After E3 was finished, variations in size for the Draugr started coming online and we realized we needed to support that. The larger “brute” versions of the Draugr were worked on by Daniel Birczynsk and Adam Boyd. Now you’re probably reading this and thinking this is crazy, so many people have touched the Draugrs! Well…you are correct. That said, we’ve essentially been over analyzing and chipping away at these characters for four years now. Throughout that time we gained and lost team members and shifted ownership of content around quite a bit. It’s a blessing and curse to getting things done. The blessing is you get more time with it, the curse is you can fall into the trap of never finishing.
As we approached the last six months of development I was auditing all the cast members to make sure everything was consistent. We were sitting pretty good, but because so many hands touched the Draugrs throughout development we had areas of their design that didn’t feel cohesive. As a “finaling” attempt, I pulled everyone’s work from over the years into one master session and redesigned/mixed everyone’s content together and it made up what you hear in the final game.
So how many people was that? Five? If you ask members of the audio team what made this project unique in regards to previous projects they’ve been on, my guess is they would agree that it was extremely collaborative. I would wager that most of the content in the game touched at least two sound designers DAWs at some point.
All of these monsters/enemies make ‘vocal’ sounds. Can you talk about your approach to the vocals? And with some many monsters/enemies, how did you keep the vocals sounding distinct for each class?
Having a purer vocal made them cut through the mix easier when played alongside a more densely crafted vocal, like the Draugrs.
MN: I knew this would be an issue early on so one direction I wanted to focus on was identifying characters that didn’t necessarily need “sound design” in their vocal aesthetic. These characters were the Travelers, Revenants, Dark Ones, Valkyries, and to a certain extent, the Trolls. Having a purer vocal made them cut through the mix easier when played alongside a more densely crafted vocal, like the Draugrs. It also gave us significantly more bandwidth to focus sound design time on other portions of the game.
What were some of your go-to tools for this process?
MN: Each creature or character has their own needs and each sound designer brings their own tools. My most used plugin is probably Avid’s EQ actually, but that’s probably a bit boring. I’m a huge fan of sub-harmonic enhancers like Lowender (by reFuse), I really like the Schep’s Particle Processor, and also use the GRM Suite frequently. But really, the content or sequence dictates what I’m using. It wouldn’t be weird to open my session and just see a few EQs in there and nothing else.
As for a few of our other sound designers on the project, Daniel Birczynski loves using the Melda Productions suite. He also uses saturation plugins like FabFilter’s Saturn and GRM Tools. I personally love the small, homemade, make-shift Foley pit in his sound room that he utilizes for stone drags, rope creaks, and more. Roel Sanchez, another sound designer on the project likes to get his hands dirty with more technical explorations. He’s created some custom Max/MSP cross synthesis/morphing tools for his design work.
What creature had the most challenging vocals?
MN: As you read earlier, I think the most challenging character was the Draugr. They were the most common enemy type so we knew we wanted them to sound good, but we also didn’t want them to sound like a typical undead creature. Given how long we iterated on them for and how many people touched it, I think it naturally wins this award for “most challenging.”
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Let’s look at the bosses again: There are lots of different bosses, so which was your favorite to design?
MN: Since we’ve been talking a lot about creatures, I think Daniel Birczynski had one of the most significant boss fights in regards to that. Daniel did a recent talk at Digital Dragons where he showed off the design process behind that. I encourage you to check it out. His voice ended up being the foundations for a lot of what you hear and molding content around that. But I’ll let him explain in his own words:
The important aspect of creating a good creature sound is to make sure you can’t hear individual elements in the final composited sound.
“The dragon was a challenge for a number of reasons but also an element I had the most fun with. It was very rewarding when it finally came together.
I was focusing mostly on the vocal elements. My goal for these sounds was to convey its sheer size. You want to feel the weight and power of the creature when standing near it. I started with my own voice and experimented a lot until I was satisfied with it. I used pitch and format shifting to transform my voice but one tool in particular came in handy: Antares’ Throat.
It’s based on the physical modeling of human vocal apparatus but allows for changing throat length and size. It helped me create a sound that would come out of the giant’s mouth. Once I had my base, I created a medium length roar by adding layers. The important aspect of creating a good creature sound is to make sure you can’t hear individual elements in the final composited sound.
I used and processed sounds of different animals, stressed and scratched metal, cymbals, dry ice, crumbling rocks, and a number of synthesized sounds. I’m a synth nerd so I was happy to use my toys, mostly my modular synth. Once I had my medium length roar, I created variations for many different dragon’s animations including unique sounds for cinematics and any special attacks.
Another challenging element was the dragon’s footsteps. They had to sound huge, earthshaking. Achieving this effect required not only designing footsteps placed on each foot but also adding a quad sound for each footstep with reflections from the surrounding mountains.”
Digital Dragons Presentation:
Looking at that first encounter with Baldur (known then as The Stranger), there’s lots of close hand-to-hand combat and fun sounds like breaking stone and shattering wood. The environment in this encounter gets wrecked. Can you talk about your sound work on that encounter?
Mike Maksim and Daniel Birczynski also contributed content for some of Baldur’s special attacks. Did I mention how collaborative this project was? Hah!
MN: Yeah, that was a fun one! That whole sequence is a combination of people’s hard work. Myself, Chris Clanin, and Nassim Ait-Kaci. Chris Clanin worked on the destructible trees while Nassim and I worked on the rest of the fight. This sequence really benefited from us being able to iterate multiple times on it. Hats off to the team, specifically Denny Yeh (Combat Designer), for having an early prototype ready so early in development. I made an initial pass at the fight, focusing on broad strokes. Nassim came in for an internal milestone and really dialed it in with a fine-toothed comb. He made sure Baldur’s punches felt different than Kratos’ and things like that. I did a final pass and added some extra glue on smaller details, and did a final mix pass. Actually, now that I’m thinking about it more, Mike Maksim and Daniel Birczynski also contributed content for some of Baldur’s special attacks. Did I mention how collaborative this project was? Hah!
And the second encounter with Baldur was fun too, as the fight moves through different areas from the mountain to the dragon and downward. Any details, sound-wise, you’d like to highlight on that encounter?
MN: That sequence was worked on by a few internal team members and our friends at Formosa Interactive. Formosa really helped us out in this sequence by creating a lot of content for the Dragon’s plated armor and vocalizations. I wanted to task them with that because I knew their group would bring a different aesthetic to the dragon from what we were doing in-house with the others.
For the melee sequences between Baldur and Kratos we recorded custom Foley for the tackling and transitions along with reusing most of the impact sounds authored for the fight.
Actually, encounters with Baldur were really intense! That final fight, what were some of your challenges for sound there?
MN: What made the final fight most challenging was making sure all the banter and dialog between the characters was intelligible. It becomes really challenging to tell a story when you also want to hear incoming attacks. It took a bit of massaging, but getting the mix right there was probably the most challenging aspect of the sequence. We did this again through side-chain compression.
Sigrun, Queen of the Valkyries. What went into her sound? Any sound details you’d like to highlight on this encounter?
MN: Chris Clanin and Formosa Interactive were involved in the Valkyries sound design. Initially their wings were even more blade-like, so we took a very literal approach, and you could hear a lot of metal dangling as they moved, almost like chimes. As the character evolved the wings started to feel a bit lighter and feather-like. At this point in development Chris was completely dedicated to working on Kratos, so we allocated the design time to Formosa. They came in and really took the character to completion in a short amount of time.
What was your approach to Kratos’s sounds, for his axe, shield, and melee sounds? In particular, Kratos’s axe returning sounds/feels very satisfying. How did you make that happen?
MN: That was one of the first sounds I made for the game actually. I remember seeing a Bungie talk about the rocket-bys and how they were able to sync the by based on the distance to the player. They were essentially seeking into the audio file to start playback at the most optimal point. I wanted to find a way to use that idea with the axe and other things in the game. For the sounds of the axe flying through the air, I knew a looping sound with doppler wouldn’t feel satisfying enough. I thought the “seeking” tech would work perfectly to help embellish this and make recalling the axe feel more cinematic. This is probably one of the reasons it feels so good. We were able to design a craft a predictable experience through sound with this tech. Another sound that people seem to be responding to a lot is the catch. This was really only a few layers. Me grabbing a baseball bat with my hand and a couple other “wood thwaps” I found in a library. We also play the sound up a bit in the mix to help sell the speed of it hitting Kratos’ hand.
After I made my early prototypes, Chris Clanin took over the sound design responsibilities for Kratos. Here are his thoughts on it in his own words:
The Axe becomes more and more magical sounding as it becomes more powerful and visually compelling.
“About a year after I started on the project, I was given the opportunity to take on the sound design for Kratos’ weapons and magic. Mike had created some unique and interesting prototype sounds for the Axe, which conceptually married cold ice magic with the tonality and heft of Thor’s hammer. One of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to extend and scale that conceptual framework across the ever-evolving skill tree, given our tight memory budget for Kratos. This meant one-shot sounds had to be pretty granular and modular, but I also needed to take a layered approach within Wwise, changing the relative blend of the modular layers based on the upgrade status of the Axe, so that the Axe becomes more and more magical sounding as it becomes more powerful and visually compelling.
I took a real-time sound design approach for most of the systemic Axe sounds, including the recall/return. Both the throw and return consist of multiple layers of one-shots playing on top of each other in looping random containers, the trigger-rate and pitch of which is modulated by a ‘Distance_Leaving_Player’ RTPC for the throw and a ‘Distance_Approaching_Player’ RTPC for the return. We needed two different RTPC’s, depending on whether the Axe was spinning away or coming back to the player, since the spin rate was much slower on the return.
Additionally, there are longer “sweetener” one-shots that are sort of stylized stinger elements that play on top of the spin one-shots but are only triggered once upon recall. We created a system to seek into these sweetener layers (the mix of which is determined by the Axe upgrade level), based on how far away the Axe is from the player. That way, the apex of the sweetener one-shots’ waveforms would always sync with the handle hand-grab. Everything gets shut down on catch (with fades of course), except for some ice magic tails to match the visuals.
I think part of what makes the return/catch satisfying is the overall mix presentation. Most people aren’t used to hearing literal Foley elements like the hand-grab play at full-scale!”
Any fun field recordings for this game? What did you record and how did you record it?
MN: We recorded a ton of custom Foley for the different characters in the game. Covering their clothing, gear, weapons, footsteps, body falls, etc. A lot of it was recorded in-house but we also had quite a few days booked with the Foley teams at Warner Bros and Technicolor. What’s great about our team and set up here at Sony is we have a fully functional Foley stage in San Diego. We definitely took advantage of that throughout the project.
We also made our own bullroarers for the Dark One wings. That was a lot of fun and a good learning experience.
Midway through development we also made it out to record a few animals. We got some great recordings of bears and wolves.
How did you approach the sound from a technical perspective? Can you share some details on the engine and how you implemented the sounds?
MN: I’ll let Roel Sanchez (one of the sound designers on the team) take this one:
“The technical approach to sounds varied greatly depending on game side systems and overall user interactivity. Our intentions for the majority of sounds was a modular approach (Start, Loop, Release) samples to cover inevitable timing changes. There were also many instances where a one-shot authored sound covered the necessary content.
For example, something like the Dark Elves trident charge up attack had samples which blended and modulated in pitch and volume based on the distance to the player but something like the end of a puzzle interaction might have one 2D 5.1 sample providing a more detailed asset that is uniquely tailored for that moment.
On the implementation side of things, the vast majority of the animations and combat interactions were hooked up using scripted tags and events. While this system allowed for robust callbacks of audio playback on animation sets and VFX, the lack of a real-time animation previewer took away a lot of iteration time from us.”
The in-game dialogue has received lots of praise for its natural flow. How did you accomplish that? For example, the dynamic dialogue of Atreus commenting on the situation, like “one enemy left”, was helpful and interesting. How did the team keep those interactions feeling fresh and accurate over an entire campaign?
MN: There was a ton of focus testing going on during development and it really paid dividends. The information from those sessions gave the writers and designers a lot of feedback on areas to build upon. In the end, all the praise here needs to go to the writers and the game design team. They painstakingly scripted all those “if this, then that” scenarios.
Overall, what are you most proud of in terms of sound on God of War?
MN: To be completely honest, I think a lot of us on the team were blown away by the reception. We were so close to this thing, and some of us have been on it for years, so you tend to lose perspective. I think our team is proud that we delivered a game that’s resonating so much with people. You can’t really ask for more than that.
A big thanks to Mike Niederquell and the sound team for giving us a look at the excellent sound of God of War – and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!
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