Not many people pay attention to the sound design and composition that goes into their favorite games. I know I don't. I barely pay attention to soundtracks outside of main themes and I rarely stop to appreciate the sounds of the digital worlds I'm inhabiting. Despite that, sound is important. It's necessary to create the verisimilitude of a game, to make it feel real and immerse the player in a world. Strip away the background chatter, ambient sound, and music of your favorite game and you'd be left with a drab, lifeless endeavor.
Sound is important, even if we don't always notice it.
The folks behind the sound in your favorite games know this. They understand that not all players will truly understand the hard work and craft that went into making sure that the "fwoosh" of a fireball is suitably powerful or ensuring that a music cue for an important moment fits just right. Many players only notice excellence or omission, something that Ghost Recon: Wildlands audio director Ghislain Soufflet explains to me during my visit to Ubisoft Paris.
"Sound is the element of the game that usually players really don't notice unless its very good or very bad," says Soufflet. "How do we use sound to make our open-world shine even more? How do we use sound to enhance the feeling of freedom that you get from warfighting and drug cartels in the Wildlands?"
Finding The Heartbeat of Bolivia
Soufflet and the audio team at Ubisoft pride themselves on recreating this cocoon of sound that surrounds the player in Ghost Recon: Wildlands. Artists can spend years creating a fully-realized version of Bolivia, South America, but if it doesn't sound right, then all of that work is wasted. To ensure that digital Bolivia sounded like the real thing, Ubisoft had to travel there.
"It was clear from the start that one of the main characters of the game was the gigantic and beautiful open-world. So we start with the ambient sound. The sound of the game starts with the Wildlands, which is to say, the sound of Bolivia. In that regard, we wanted to give to the player a really authentic experience," explains Soufflet.
The core team traveled to Bolivia to capture the sounds of diverse life, from the living chatter of cities, to the harsh grating of mining work, to the quiet rustle of the wind whipping through canyons. Of the four-team research trip for Wildlands, Ubisoft had a dedicated, independent audio team, because they needed to be seperate from those photographing and visually recording the environment. The audio team needed to stay much longer in some places to truly capture a region's sound profile at all hours of the day. Ghost Recon: Wildlands has a full day/night cycle and Ubisoft wanted to retain the realistic beat of the world, whether a player was in town among the citizens of Bolivia at midday, or scanning the mountain peaks alone at night.
"A lot of the sounds that you hear were really recorded in Bolivia and they are used in the game as they were recorded," says Soufflet.
He plays a clip showing the one of the Ghosts simply standing in different areas of the game, to show off the sound profile of each region. I can hear the crunch of snow under foot and the winds whistling through the mountaintops. The soft swaying of the jungle and musical trills of the local fauna and reptile life. I make out the soft taps of the rain on the wide fronds in a swamp. (A different version of the clip is below.)
While the sounds are recorded, there's also a procedural nature to presenting them to the player. Take the wind for example, something that's rather important to accurately portraying Bolivia given its relative elevation and diverse biomes.
"One of the big conclusions of the trip to Bolivia is that it's a really, really windy country because of the height," Soufflet adds. "La Paz, the capital, is [one of] the world's highest big cities. It's up 3,600 meters high (11,913 feet above sea level to be exact). The wind is really strong and specific sounding. We had to create quite a complex wind system in order to recreate that in the game."
Ghost Recon: Wildlands' wind system takes into consideration all surrounding vegetation and objects, calculating how real wind would react to them. On top of that, it also takes into account the topography of the local terrain: height, exposure to the wind, and the type of terrain itself. If you were able to be in two locations at the same height with the same vegetation, the sound profile would still be different if one was on a mountain and the other was in a canyon.