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Praise Be to Hymn: The Aural Onslaught of Far Cry 5
Post by Grizz @ 01:45pm 29/09/17 | Comments
We recently travelled to cult central, aka Ubisoft Montreal. Once there we were indoctrinated into Far Cry 5's impressive new audio engine by Audio Director Tony Gronick....

Music with a cult following

AusGamers: Hidden in one of your presentation slides was a bulletpoint that suggested enemies and NPCs will sing the brain-washing cult hymns Joseph Seed has commissioned. That's quite a novel feature. Do they just dynamically break into song while they're patrolling and unaware of the player?

Tony Gronick: So, yeah, you will be walking by and you'll hear cult members singing – in tune – with the piece of music that is playing behind them. It really anchors them in the world. It's a feature that I really had to push for, too, because at first they said it couldn't be done. But, as I kept showing people videos of how cool it could be, some folks much smarter than me made it happen.

That said, we pretty much only have them singing the chorus, because ten songs would have taken an actor quite long. Still, even with a chorus I think we're setting a bar here and we'll continue to raise it as we go along.

AusGamers: Were these cult hymns easy to nail down?

Tony: We knew the cult needed its own sound, but we honestly didn't know what that was going to be. My initial approach was post-rock, but it proved to be a little too 'droney', especially on an in-car radio that went against the drone of the engine. Christian rock didn't match the visuals of the characters either. Likewise, traditional hymns seemed to fit, though the lyrics didn't suit what this cult was about. These songs needed to match the manifesto that the cult believes in. But, most important of all, even if you were a listener with no knowledge of the cult, you'd need to find the music beautiful. Once you swallowed that lure and entered into the cult, those lyrics would then start to take on a double meaning.

AusGamers: What's been your biggest challenge with the audio so far?

Tony: I have to say that the biggest challenge has been these cult hymns and making them believable things that might have existed for a long time. I needed them to be inspirational as well as being a part of the Project at Eden's Gate cult. Probably a close second would be the sheer size of this game, and just trying to keep a handle on everything that's been going on.

AusGamers: We also imagine one of the challenges with the hymns is finding the right degree of professionalism with the choir. On the one hand Joseph Seed and his ilk aren't Capitol Records, so there needs to be a bit of amateur hour going on in what they produce. On the other hand, the soundtrack of any game has to be at a certain level because players will spend hours listening to it.

Tony: Well with the choir we found the singers could sometimes be too on time. So much so, the voices were [expertly] piled on top of each other so that it didn't sound “big”. Everybody was perfectly in time. So we would ask some of the singers to be a little off time to make it feel like there were more singers. Basically, I approached they hymns like this: every area of the game approaches them differently. In John's area – the one you saw in the E3 demo – he has the means to get a choir, to get the best voices. Originally I brought in about forty people from this team to sing, because that's what I thought it would be – like a recording of a church – but it lost a bit of its grandiose, its inspiration. So yes, there will be scenes where it is a smaller choir, but to me I think it makes sense that it's a grand choir. And that's only 15 or 20 people, you know, as opposed to a hundred.

AusGamers: So in addition to these catchy as hell hymns, you've got 80 voice actors in this production doing 80,000 lines of dialogue which is – wow – 4 times the size of the last game. Speaking as Australians who are rarely replicated well by international voice actors, we have to ask: was it difficult finding Montreal-based, Montana-sounding extras / singers to record?

Tony: It has been very difficult. We're recording in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and the thing is: people have mistaken the Southern drawl for Montana, but it's not the same thing. The drawl is Georgia. Montana isn't so much the accent but how they pronounce certain words. “Car-mel” instead of “ca-ra-mel”, for example. At the very beginning of auditions we were having actors who were putting on an accent that just didn't feel believable in the game, so we picked actors that could act. We made sure any word that would be pronounced differently would be in there, because Montana is a mash up of a lot of different words and cultures.

AusGamers: We've visited a lot of games studios in our my time, and without fail whenever we interview an audio lead we have to ask about the foley process for creating sound effects. For example, when we played Far Cry 5 just now, we ran over a grizzly bear with a thresher – how do you even conceive of making something like that?

Tony: I've been working in film and television for about 30 years now, so I have a huge bank of these sounds. But what I did in this project that I've never done before is I actually hired a foley artist and taught him how to implement. So he's come onto the game and now he's not just going 'oh I have to do these footsteps' or ' I have to this gushy bear sound' – which I'll get into a little bit more later. Now he's implementing it and seeing it going into the game. By doing things that way he might say 'oh I didn't need that detail' or 'I need this detail' and I feel it's really going to bring the foley overall up. Now, as to your bear question: a few of us took a semi-frozen turkey, went into the foley room, put a couple of mics beside it. We all had gloves on and we all felt good about [how it was going to go], but as we tore it apart, little pieces of turkey flew around and a couple of us got sick for days after that [laughs]. But I think it's worth it because it sounds pretty gross!

AusGamers: Montana is big sky country, and your sandbox version of it is essentially one massive valley. In terms of weapon audio, there's a high potential for gunfire porn there. How did you do that sort of space justice with bullet retorts?

Tony: I wish I could take credit for that. But my Assistant Director, Chris Ove, is designing a lot of the guns and he's been on them for a couple of years now.That's his passion. Essentially we had multiple recordings of the same gun – sometimes with twelve mics on it. So the job is picking which mic is best to use. One might be a bit more distant and have reverb on it, so we'll use it for this. And when the player is indoors we'll use this one because it sounds that much closer. But basically, switching our engine [to Vwise] has given us a little more flexibility to really break the shot down into parts. Before we might have a loop playing. But now we have the gunshot, the mechanism, mid-range shot, high-range shot, and we're able to mix those in the game as we go along.

AusGamers: Even after only a small amount of playtime we've found your hymns to be ear-worms that we cannot shake. Thanks for your time, Tony. You're doing God's work.

Tony: Thank you!

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