Dev Blog #28 | Sound Design: Hearing Voices

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Hi, I am David, lead sound designer at Fatshark. I joined the Vermintide project about a year ago. Fatshark has always been working on several titles simultaneously and this autumn a year ago was no exception. I’ve been following the Vermintide project from the side since the start and was amazed by the progress. So I was happy when I finally could join the team, and as for many others in the company, Warhammer has been a part of my years of growing up.

Now over to what this blog is about: voices. Voice production involves a lot of people from different areas within game production. To make the voices to really shine you’ll need good actors but also well written lines, a robust voice system and the right mixing tools to make the voices stand out. So it’s really a team effort.

It’s hard to cover all areas in one blog. In this blog I will focus on one part of voice production: the recording.

Before you can start to record you obviously need to know who the characters are in your game. You’ll need to know their background story and the setting. Luckily Warhammer is packed with lore and background information about characters and places. Even though we have a lot of knowledge about Warhammer here at Fatshark, there’s even more to be found at Games Workshop. We consulted some of the best GW affiliated writers to assist our Game Writer and Creative Director with script writing and story. Doing so ensured the writing was in line with the Warhammer lore from the get-go, which the whole production would benefit from.

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Casting

For an actor/actress to embody a character, he/she needs to know as much as possible of relevant information about the character and the setting. But you don’t need 500 pages of background story. Maximum 1 to 2 pages about the setting, the physicals of the character, the voice type and the background.

David Shaw Parker, the Inn Keeper, handing out mission instructions to the heroes

When the actor knows what kind of character they are playing they can start reading the lines. We tried to choose lines for the casting that are typical for the character and that covered an emotional range. One particular important area is the combat effort lines. Our game is mostly about fighting so you need to know that the actor can scream and shout for hours, making the sounds when you get hurt, swing your sword or die a horrible death. Not all actors are used to or comfortable with gurgling water while pretending to die a slow death.

When the casting was done we had the enjoyable task of choosing from sample lines of many talented actors. From a sound designer’s perspective it was important that each player voice was unique and could instantly be recognised in the game. So if one player character had a really low voice we couldn’t add in another character with really a low voice. That frequency range and timbre was already occupied. Also, it was important that the characters had the right chemistry between them.

Nicolette McKenzie, the Handler, shouting out instructions and encouragements to the heroes

Some characters we instantly knew what actor to pick. For others it took some time and a lot of discussion before we settled for a voice.

The lesson I learned from the casting is that the preproduction phase is extremely important before you go to a casting. The characters who were the hardest pick were also the ones where our opinion on the character shifted. So if possible, the character bios should clearly state who the character is and who he isn’t.

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Recording

Game production is a highly iterative process. Try an idea, if it doesn’t work throw it away and try another. This isn’t exactly how voice production works. You can’t throw away hundreds of hours of recordings. Well, you can if you have a lot of money, but we needed to make sure that what we recorded would end up in the game. One way of doing that was to start with the lines that we knew we would need regardless how gameplay or level design changed. For example, we knew for sure that people are going to get hurt in our game. So recording lines like “Kerillian, you are badly hurt” could be a start. Then at the end of the project we recorded the lines most subject to change.

Dan Mershvo receiving instructions on how to do the Empire Soldier’s voice and recording several gruff lines 

During our first day of recording it was sometimes hard to know if the actor had the right amount of intensity when reading a line. The game is constantly changing from intense combat to calmer periods with less enemies. But still there is almost always someone fighting. To get the intensity right in every single line was one of our toughest challenges.  We asked the actors to read the line two or three times. The first version could be really screamy, second one less screamy and the third one in a conversational tone. By doing this we could cover up for most cases. It is also a way of keeping the actor on their toes. If you for example are screaming a hundred lines in a row the last ones will not be as intense as the first ones.

Our contextual voice system was also of great help in this matter. The system knows a lot about what state the game is in and what state the player is in. It also knows about the players history. How many times has he been knocked down? How many times has he played this level? This data is of great help when it comes to play the right voice-over at the right time.

Tim Bentrick as the Witch Hunter, repeating lines using different tones of voice

On the side notes I can mention is that we used text-to-speech earlier on in the development. This was an excellent way of testing out the voice system in game, but horrible for game immersion :)

Most of the hard work actually starts after the recording is done, where amount of this work is highly dependent upon how well we were prepared before the recordings. But before we go, here’s a sneak peak of the voice behind the enemy. 

James Hogg cheering at Clanrat as a Stormvermin

Short and startled Clanrat yelling by James Hogg

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