When you first meet Jörmungandr the World Serpent in God of War, Kratos looks ready to rumble, as if all the dastardly boss fights across the series facing gods 50 times his size have him primed to anticipate when danger would strike. But the World Serpent ends up not being a threat of that magnitude; the big pearlescent snake is instead a friend. And when the intimidatingly large serpent speaks, it shakes the world.
Backstage at the DICE Awards 2019, I spoke with lead sound designer Mike Niederquell, dialogue lead Leilani Ramirez, and director of God of War Cory Barlog to get to the esophagus of the World Serpent's realm-shaking voice. The voice, not so surprisingly, has peculiar origins.
"Cory came to me and he said he wanted it to sound like a Tuvan throat singer, with like," Niederquell demonstrates a guttural "uhhhhhhhh" sound of its harmonic, overtone singing, "It kind of stemmed from there, and trying to recreate that with what he wanted and carve it to where we felt we were happy. That's where that came from. When it spoke, he wanted it to be like something you've never heard before and impactful because this thing is so alien, so big, and it's an ancient tongue, as they say in the game, so he wanted it to represent that."
Of all the sounds in last year's God of War, the voice of the World Serpent is perhaps the most memorable. When it speaks to Kratos, Atreus, and the disembodied head of Mimir, it is at once incomprehensible, intimidating, but also kind. You know immediately that the World Serpent bears no malicious intent, but instead the opposite.
"Honestly, we messed around with the World Serpent's voice for almost a year, just trying to figure out what it was and then at one point, [Mike] just said, 'You know what, just go away. I'm just going to figure something out. I've got an idea,'" Barlog says. "He mixed a little bit of the Tuvan throat singing, but he found all these programs and he used his own voice to test out and do this stuff, and I think in the end it's actually his voice that is doing the thing because it was just so good. His first sort of pass when he clicked with all these different ideas, it was just amazing. They have like 30, 40 thousand dollar speakers in the sound pod, so the walls were shaking and rumbling, I can see his keyboard rumbling, and I was like 'Okay, this is right. That's really good.' It was cool. It was a very neat moment."
The final sounds that ended up making the World Serpent were dominantly sourced from animals, according to Niederquell, with a lot of layering to create the memorable voice. But as with all sound design, the voice was just the tip of making the World Serpent not only look alive, but sound alive too. "There was a lot of dragging objects along the ground and messing with frequencies to make it feel larger than it actually is," says Niederquell. "There's like rock debris when it moves against the mountain that you pitch down to make it feel larger. Its voice has a lot of mouth squishes and movements to get the jowls of its jaw to make it feel really big. There's a ton of layers that go into the sound of the World Serpent."
For some of the other creatures in God of War, Ramirez says Old Norse language was a key inspiration too in the decision making of which creatures would speak, such as the serpent, and which wouldn't. "In general with all the creatures within the game, there was back and forth talk about which creatures actually speak," Ramirez says. "That was a continued conversation that we would have with Cory and the design team in general to figure out." Even substantially smaller things, like Kratos walking on dirt in his signature moccasins, took a lot of iterations.
Niederquell emphasizes that the sound design of God of War, which took home the night's Outstanding Sound Design honor at the DICE Awards, was a tremendous team effort. "Leilani gives us feedback, and everyone plays the game and they tell us how they think it sounds and what they think it should be, so it's the sum of its parts for a game team," he says.
So the next time you hear the World Serpent's Midgard-trembling voice, you can picture a team of sound designers wrestling with animal yelps, Tuvan throat singing, and the sound of Niederquell himself, all helping make it all come together.