Crytek's Ryse: Son of Rome has won no shortage of plaudits for its stunning visuals, but the game's audio has also drawn a wealth of admirers for helping to immerse players in the gritty world of the Roman Empire. Recently, the game was nominated for four awards by the Game Audio Network Guild – an organization that collates feedback from experienced industry insiders to honor the very best in videogame sound. The judges will announce this week if Ryse claims top spot in categories including "Sound Design of the Year" and "Best Dialogue". On top of that, Ryse is also being considered in the "Best Soundtrack" category in the 23rd International Film and Music Festival of Córdoba, scheduled to take place in Spain later this year.
We spoke to Crytek's Director of Audio, Simon Pressey, about his team's work on Ryse to get a better understanding of what went into making the game sound every bit as good as it looks.
How many people make up the audio team at Crytek, and what are some of the specialized roles each of you play?
The core team in Frankfurt is six audio designers, who are all polyvalent and design sound for every aspect of the game. We did partially divide up the work into; Combat, Foley, Ambiances, Technical design, and Mixing, but we are a very collaborative team so there is quite a bit of overlap, and we feed off and grow the sound design together, and try to avoid the sound being developed in isolation as it has to all work together, organically. We also had significant support from other members of Crytek audio with our designers from Austin, Budapest and Sofia, and worked closely with Kristofor Mellroth and his Ryse audio team at Microsoft Game Studios, who recorded a lot of original source and encouraged us to push the boundaries and capabilities of the Xbox One. The game is in 7.1 and all the cinematics are also mixed in 7.1, which is probably a first in game sound and was a challenge that Kristofor motivated and supported us on. Then we also have our core audio Programmer Thomas Wollenzin and invaluable code support from our Nottingham studio, without whose close collaboration none of the sound would play. And the list can go on growing, so in total about 24 Crytek employees were involved, and if I include Dialog Production, Music Recording, the orchestra and cast, Dialog Post Production, and Music Mastering, there are over 200 hundred individuals. And I know they all worked with pride and passion to create the sound of Ryse.
When approaching a game like Ryse that focuses in on a period as epic as the Roman Empire and aims for a cinematic feel, what are some of the key challenges you’re faced with?
Cinematic sound and the reality of the Roman Empire; on some levels they are very far apart with cinematic sound having hyper-realism and aspects like slow motion, at the same time we want to convey a sense of authentic realism – an example would be arrows. To make arrows that have the typical aspects of "Hollywood" whilst still being realistic, we built some really big heavy arrows with extra large flights on them, and then of course fired them at very short range to get the full power of their impact on various materials. The same goes for something as simple as Roman Army sandals; they had serious hobnailed sandals and they were for marching 40 kilometers a day in, so we reconstructed these and recorded them marching on many surfaces. One of our main goals was that the player enjoy the visceral experience of being in combat in the Roman Army in the throng of battle, and we deploy the craft of focused dramatic sound to achieve that. In fact to do a game cinematically is much harder than making a film, in a film everything is linear and moves in one direction, in a game, even one like Ryse that has a linear story, every combat situation is a unique combination of events, and the player can and does take a different line through the game every time. So for the sound to provide a seamless experience it has to re-compose itself from many thousands of elements, more than 15,000 of them which – if played end to end – would take over 19 hours to listen to. With that much sound going on we made very focused choices of what you would hear when, so the sound communicates without being a wall of battle.
There are many examples I could point to, but one that I think demonstrates the lengths we went to was the vocalization of the Pict Barbarians from the North. We created a language that was part Gaelic, part Celtic, part Cambric and literally had to teach that to the actors.
Then there is the score, which is truly cinematic, moving from underscore as it exposes aspects of the story or the emotions of the characters, to fist pumping glory as foes are vanquished. There are 200 plus pieces in the score of Ryse, all performed with a full live symphony orchestra – that's over 7 hours of music. To compose that much consistently great music, we turned to both our in house composers, Borislav Slavov and Peter Antovszki, and outsourced composer Tilman Silescu.
At what point in the creative process does the audio team become most heavily involved in a project like Ryse? Is it a case of being given footage/gameplay in its finished form and simply adding appropriate sound, or is it a much more collaborative process right from the start?
The audio design really starts at the very start of the game design, and we had made a prototype audio play of how we thought we might try and make the game sound before it was even close to running in a rudimentary form. Then as the game starts to take shape that prototype gets tested out, and implemented as runtime audio, and we start to discover the technical audio code requirements that are going to have to be developed to support the gameplay, and this is a sort of iterative soup with changes coming in continuously right up until the game is ready to ship. We try and design placeholder sound as the game goes through iterations and then fine-tune that. In a lot of respects audio is on the tail end of a lot of development so we do get to do a lot of work towards the end of the game development cycle.
And of course there are very few examples of "simple sound". We can’t just create one sound for an axe and repeat it, it would sound very unrealistic and boring, we make the sound up of several elements and multiple strikes, against every possible surface, from every type of direction, glancing, direct, deflected, and program in variation of volumes of the different elements and randomization of their pitch and tonality based on the perspective that the player hears that sound from. So what might appear "simple" is in fact quite involved, and when you have 15,000 of these to make, even when we try and simplify them it is still a very involved process that can’t wait until the end of development. And because of the way sound influences our perception of so many aspects of a game's design it is more or less impossible to wait until it is built before starting it. An example would be a walk and run animation, how fast a character moves and how heavy they sound as they do it, has to marry with the animation; if either the sound or animation is wrong they both feel wrong, but when they are right the believability and realism is there for the player and the design team.
What aspects of the audio in Ryse are you most proud of?
Personally, the audio team and their relentless dedication, passion and hard work. Sonically, the combat experience in 7.1 surround. We created with audio an impression of a massive and intense battle, when visually only a small percentage of this is visible. The cinematics in and of themselves are an incredible sonic achievement. The score is magnificent and sounds glorious. Augie’s "Best Boulder Ever" sounds, I defy you to pick one that isn’t epic! The voice performance and mixing of the cinematic dialog has nuance that I feel sets a benchmark for games.