Radio is only part of the game's overall sound design though. The layers of Ghost Recon's audio continue to build, with ambient sounds, gunfire, and radio being joined by the game's actual soundtrack. Instead of simply composing and recording a soundtrack through, Ubisoft Paris decided to try something new.
"Most of the time, when the composer starts working on the game, there's not much of the game to see," says Bachet, outlining how game soundtracks are normally composed. "There's not much for him to compose to because the game is not there yet. It's concept art. So what we usually do is prepare some very detailed documents, describing everything, from the emotion, the feel, the mood, the BPM and scale we want to use. It's very heavy for the composer, with a lot of constraints."
"When we started to work on designing the music, we thought it would not be the right way to go. One of the main elements of Ghost Recon: Wildlands is freedom. The freedom of the player to do whatever they want. We should give give the composer the same kind of feeling," he adds.
Thanks to Ghost Recon's extensive world engine work, by time the team started to compose the music, the game was looking good already. It was missing features and polish, but you could see digital Bolivia in front of you.
"So we were able to do something that has been done on movies a few times, like Miles Davis did on Elevator to the Gallows," Bachet says. "They improvised the music in front of the movies. No constraints except bringing emotion to the film. We thought this would be a good way to go."
So the team began looking for a composer that would be willing to improvise a score in front of a game. At the beginning of the Ghost Recon: Wildlands project Ubisoft had gathered a number of reference tracks for the overall South American sound. Within many of those reference tracks, the name "Alain Johannes" kept appearing.
Alain Johannes is an instrumentalist, vocalist, and producer, best known as a member of Queens of the Stone Age or the producer for the Arctic Monkeys. Johannes is Chilean-American, born and raised in Santiago, Chile. So Ubisoft Paris' audio team contacted Johannes to see if he would be up for their experiment.
He said "yes".
"This is something that I've always dreamed about. I've always been engaged with the music aspect of a cinematic media and video games," Johannes tells me.
Ubisoft had already set up the tonal palette of Ghost Recon: Wildlands, with instruments like the charango, hand drums, shakers, and cigar-box guitar. Ubisoft traveled to Johannes' studio and spent nine days there composing the score for the game. There were screens in front of Johannes running the game and he would react the the environment onscreen.
Once they had the basic structure, Johannes went to another larger studio and called on his friends and colleagues for help. These friends included producer Norm Block, singer Glenn Danzig, and Queens of the Stone Age members like bass guitarist Nick Oliveri and drummer Joey Castillo.
"I've known these guys for a long time and I knew that they would be very open to the idea of improvising. I trust them with their musicality," says Johannes. "We would go in with two drum sets - which is kind of hard to pull off - and watch gameplay. Then [Manu Bachet] would kind of guide us through and we'd start jiving on it. Within ten or fifteen minutes were were already in the zone."
They ended up recording ten hours of music in total, with three hours ending up in the game itself.
"For me it was so great to be able to do it like that," Johannes admits. "It brought out a feeling of spontaneity. This was a badass team and we had such a great time. I love improvising. I think you reach higher heights by taking a chance and jumping off the cliff. All the music that I love has improvised elements in it. An additional component that feels fresh and a little bit dangerous. You feel that."
The score for Ghost Recon: Wildlands is peppered with a throwback to the series' history. The theme for Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, composed by Tom Salta, reappears here and there in Wildlands, remixed within the South American sound Johannes and the audio team came up for the game.
Improvise The Music, Improvise the Playback
Of course, Ghost Recon: Wildlands isn't a film or linear experience. It's an open-world title, where the player can tackle obstacles in any order they choose or simply decide to wander the countryside. The music composed by Johannes and Bachet doesn't simply play all the time in game, it's sampled dynamically depending on what's happening.
"It's not like in a movie. You don't know what the player is going to do at any point. In a movie, you know when a guy is going to come out of the door. In the game, we need to adapt," explained Bachet. "Most of the time, you have exploration music going on and then you get attacked and the music switches."
"We wanted to avoid having music all the time in the game. We wanted to avoid the wallpaper effect," he adds.
Bachet tells me that the idea behind Ghost Recon: Wildlands' soundtrack is to have less music than previous Ghost Recons, because the game is not scripted. There's more music in Wildlands than previous titles, but you'll hear less music overall because of the size of the game and the trend away from always having the background music playing.
"When you're exploring, you can reach the top of a mountain and then you're going to hear a musical phrase for 30 or 40 seconds and then it's going to vanish in the wind," says Bachet. "Just a reminder that music is there. When you get closer to a camp or start to do stuff, the music will follow the action. We want the player to listen to the fantastic ambience that we have in the game."
Within all these layers, Ghost Recon: Wildlands' sound also has to take into account what's most important during each moment. There's no need to work on the ambient sound, radio, and soundtrack if it's all presented in the game as a dense cacophony.
"We want to offer enough room for everybody in the mix," says Soufflet. "When you shoot a gun, it creates what we call a gun bubble. The gun bubble dims all the ambient sounds and the world becomes calmer, quieter so that the guns and the music can take their place and mix nicely."
This means that Ghost Recon: Wildlands can go from the player listening to the wind in the trees, to hearing the familiar nacrocorridos playing in a nearby delivery truck, before ending on the boom of a grenade launcher over the improvised soundtrack. And if the team at Ubisoft Paris did their job, you won't even notice the work that went into all that, because you'll be so immersed in the world they've helped create.