Building A Realistic Soundscape and Medieval Score From Scratch In Kingdom Come: Deliverance
Back in January, we looked at the road ahead for Warhorse Studios’ hotly anticipated title, Kingdom Come: Deliverance, and found their team excited about delivering a quality game that their fans and supporters could be proud of. Now, we’re back for another interview with some of the key members of their music and sound design teams who’ve done some incredible work on the game’s adaptive musical score and realistic soundscape.
Games rely heavily on their sound design and score to elevate both the realism and the emotional impact that their worlds — and the stories within those worlds — can have on players. But for Kingdom Come: Deliverance, Warhorse wanted to try something much more difficult than what so many other developers decide to do: they wanted to recreate the sounds and feel of medieval Bohemia from the ground up. That means everything from the twang of a bowstring launching an arrow, to the impact of a steel sword on a metal breastplate, to a Gregorian chant sung by secluded monks had to be researched, recorded, and implemented in-game.
“Sometimes… the process is really painstaking,” says Jan Valta, composer at Warhorse Studios, talking about the creation of a single musical melody for the interior of a monastery. “It took me a really long time to think about just that one theme and then make it. We even paid a visit to a monastery — it was very nice. And I wish I could tell you that in the very center of the interior, that there, surrounded by those thick walls and the souls of dead monks who’d died hundreds of years ago, a muse came down and I formed this wonderful theme — no! Nothing! Shit happened!”
He laughs and adds, “I actually came back home and was like ‘OK, well, sometimes inspiration comes and sometimes it doesn’t. So we’ll do it the other way.’ So I just started to write down several words to build association with this place — this monastery. From that, I started to combine it with some musical elements that fit with those words, and the theme grew from that. It actually sounds like some sort of alchemy when you think of it in that way. But yes, you either work hard or inspiration hits you, though I’m not sure from where. Maybe a beer can!”
“You can’t imagine how big it is… you just know that it’s big,” he says, talking about the scale of the game. “I was overwhelmed at first, but I felt like… this was going to be an incredibly beautiful, interesting ride. There’s everything in this game, everything a composer wants to have! There’s an interesting main character, a very strong story, incredible landscapes and environments — and it’s Czech! So it’s the history of my ancestors, those people from 500, 600 years ago! I knew it would be so much work, but also so much fun.”
WHAT DID HISTORY SOUND LIKE?
“Back in the 1400s, there was… not a whole lot of music.” says Adam Sporka, Warhorse Studio’s music programmer, and the man behind their game’s adaptive music engine.
“If this game was happening 100-150 years after, you know, during the Renaissance period stuff, all the really intricate and complicated pieces of music were already available. But back in the 1400s, everything was just starting out.”
Getting the game’s music to be historically accurate for the time period it takes place in was a difficult challenge, one that could only be overcome with a few constraints attached to it. Working together, Adam and Jan came up with rules that would allow them to achieve what needed to be done in order for the music of Kingdom Come: Deliverance to feel both historical and engaging at the same time.
“I had to come up with rules. I had to find out what it is that makes the medieval period music sound medieval,” says Volta.
“I came up with what I call a ‘face’ of the music. You know, you hear like five bars of something and everybody’s like ‘Oh, it sounds like some medieval piece.’ and I say ‘Yes, it is, but what makes it sound that way?’ I found some elements that I could use in a symphonic orchestra that worked within the constraints I’d set. So I’d tell Adam, you know, ‘We should do this or that,’ and he’d keep those same constraints within his parts of the soundtrack. We’d share the same rules and create from the same ‘face’ of the music.”
Laughing, Sporka adds, “It was fun because, say, for the Gregorian chant, I had to study a lot of Latin. I had to study a lot of the ways that that type of music would be written. And I wanted to do basically what’s a nonlinear Gregorian chant, so that every time you hear it, it’s a little bit different.”
The restrictions and rules agreed upon by Jan and Adam also effect Vojta Nedved, the lead sound designer at Warhorse, who’s responsible for all the sound effects in the game.
“I was doing a little research and, I’m no ornithologist, but I was taking care and if I was using some bird calls or something, I would make sure that the bird could have actually been alive in that time period in medieval Bohemia,” says Nedved.
“But yes, I work mostly with Adam… but as a sound guy, I work with various sections in Warhorse, like in animation. So the animators will tell me that there’s this, say, tanner or baker, so it’s my job to record the assets and then put those sounds to the animations. We have this big world, so I have to create all these environmental sounds which means I need to be in contact with the graphical artists and such. It’s hard to say but… I recorded dozens of hours of raw audio material. So now I have about 7,000 assets completed for the game, but it’s just a little portion of all that I’ve recorded.”
Talking about the authenticity of the game’s sounds, Nedved says, “I try to be as real as possible. It’s a hyper-realistic game, so when I want the sound of an herbalist grinding some herbs, then I just go and record exactly that. There’s no reason for trying to do it any other way. But of course, at certain points, you cannot be realistic. For example, there’s this tanner sound and the tanner in the game can scrape something against the leather on a piece of wood. It’s hard to imagine how this specific scraping would sound in reality, but for my recording, I put a piece of broom and some leather tissue on it, and then scraped a big knife against it, which made the sound I ended up using.”
Nodding, Sporka adds, “This is something that I find is really important — and you actually told me this, Vojta — but when you have a scene in a movie or a game and you want to stress certain things, you make them sound louder or you just dip the background, even though in reality, you wouldn’t be able to hear that. So basically, the realism in audio comes at the expense of the understanding of the entire situation, so you have to make a decision as to whether or not you want a physical reality, or if you want your players to understand what’s actually happening.”
“Yeah, it’s very movie-like,” Nedved says in agreement. “But for this game… I couldn’t find the sounds I wanted just using sound banks. I’m better at making my own sounds and not having to license them. Just for example, the bows! I had a guy who came in and let us record all of these medieval bows, and now a lot of different types can be heard in the game. Actually, when we recorded it, one time the guy’s hand slipped and the arrow punctured the wall in the studio! So yeah, I’m quite proud that I could make all the assets from scratch.
MAKING MUSIC FLOW LIKE WATER
Video game music is inherently different than music in any other medium. For one, you need to make sure that the music fits well within the context of the game, and adds an underlying emotion or atmosphere to the world it’s supplementing — all without becoming too repetitive or boring. Songs can last for much longer than they normally would in a movie’s soundtrack, so finding the perfect balance between a piece being both consistently engaging and fitting for the scene in which it’s playing can be quite the challenge on its own.
But for Warhorse, and Sporka in particular, simply having Kingdom Come: Deliverance’s music fit into a scene wasn’t good enough. For them, the songs need to have a linkage between their individual contexts, to be able to flow in and out of each other without ever jarring the player with a sudden change in emotion or mood. Making this possible, however, was something that took a vast amount of research and hard work.
“The adaptive music system that we have is called Sequence Music Engine, and it’s able to link whatever is happening in the game to the actual materials that we have,” says Sporka.
“The system actually has two jobs: it needs to be able to determine which part moves when, so I’m trying to make sure that things don’t repeat too often and that things are linked to certain sequences and situations in the game. And the other thing it does is that… we are going a great length to have seamless transitions. A lot of games do this by having cross-fades from one part to another — we didn’t want to do that because to have a cross-fade with symphonic music… that’s not how orchestras sound like. So basically, an orchestra needs to finish what they’re playing first, and then they need to start playing another piece of music.
Our system simulates these seamless transitions. Most of our adaptivity comes from concatenation of individual blocks, and those are slightly overlapping, which is kind of a normal thing to have. But what’s different with our system is that we have multiple links between different pieces of music, and multiple harmonic configurations. So we’re able to link any piece of in-game music, like exploration music, with any other piece of exploration music within fifteen seconds and it sounds like a whole song.”
Valta nods in agreement and adds, “That’s what we actually wanted! I think that what we do is just as good as a fantastic film score. So that’s why we also want to deliver such a soundtrack. Of course, the easy thing with film is that it’s linear. It just starts and ends and you know the order. In games, you know nothing! You just know the number of things that could happen, but you don’t know when they’ll happen or how long they’ll take or whatever order they’ll take, so you have to be prepared for anything!
You need to think about… is it worth doing this? Does it do anything? Does it add anything to the game? Does it give any more emotion to the player? If it doesn’t, then it would just be us showing that we could do that. So we decided that we wanted the soundtrack to sound as natural and as logical as possible while playing the game, as if it was composed that way. And now, here we are!”
A BRIDGE BETWEEN WORLDS
If it isn’t clear to you by now, Warhorse has some of the most passionate and dedicated people working in the industry today. Their almost single-minded obsession with making their game the absolute best that can be should be a shining example of what hard work and belief in what you’re making can do for the creation of something truly unique.
But for some at Warhorse, Kingdom Come: Deliverance isn’t merely a video game — it’s a way to connect to the past, and keep that fire burning strong.
“My father was a great concert singer and a great musician, and he passed away four years ago. And… I somehow wanted to be a part of this music world because… he was my link to that world and I loved it.” Sporka says.
“This game was my opportunity for me to reunite with my part of that world. So when we were recording that Gregorian chant, it was recorded in the church. We’re not very religious, but certain parts are very important for our family. Most of our important events took place there — weddings, funerals — so we used that space to record the chant.”
“We got a pretty great group too! About seven people came to record!” adds Valta.
Sporka smiles and nods, “Yeah, seven people. Three bass singers and four tenors — you were singing, Jan and I were singing, and actually two former colleagues of my father came as well. It was supposed to be a mixture of professional singers and also of singers who weren’t so amazing. We really wanted it to have an organic sound and… it was very special to us.”
“As far as I can judge, all of this is result of the passion and the motivation that the guys all have here,” says Tobias Stolz-Zwilling, PR Manager of Warhorse Studios. “I mean, you can clearly see just from the way they’re talking about the project that they’re willing to go the extra mile. For example, CryEngine actually started to drop us because they stopped supporting FMOD, which was the music program inside of it. So Adam had to do midnight shifts to reprogram and write code to bridge the engine. Or Vojta — his working shifts don’t end after 8PM because he’s taking the work home with him or going into the forests to record more sounds. And Jan Valta isn’t the typical composer. He’s trying to be in touch with the team, and he’s here pretty often, so he really tries to be close to the studio and is always ready to make adjustments.”
“All of that…” he says with a smile as he looks at the three other men sitting around him, “It’s surely something that we’re very proud of.”
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