Every game is a marriage of art and technical expertise, and The Witcher 3 displayed this magnificently with its unparalleled ability to tempt you off the main path. Even moreso than in Rockstar’s open worlds, the characters created by CDProjekt RED successfully lured us into their mysterious, eventful lives.
It was a massive open world that somehow felt jam-packed with content trying to drag us away from the main questline. We happily obliged.
Part of this success comes from being able to lean on the writing of Andrzej Sapkowski’s novels. But an unseen, unappreciated element is what’s happening under the hood — all the little mechanisms that avoid the chaos of realism and only present you with the right amount of overlapping, organically occurring quests at one time.
Joining the team after The Witcher 3 launched and now leading a team of six, Colin Walder is the code audio and localisation lead at CDPR. He managed all the pieces of audio that would tempt you into side activities throughout the game’s DLC chapters, and has created brand new tech for that purpose in Cyberpunk 2077. With the massive stack of audio files available, curation becomes paramount. What you’ll be most interested in, what you’ve heard before, what’s most relevant to your character, are all considerations that’ll be made under the hood before you hear that NPC one-liner in a crowded Cyberpunk marketplace.
We spoke to Walder about all the unseen, unappreciated elements that go into the audio programming of a rich open world.
Fandom: One thing The Witcher 3 was fantastic at was its tangential intrigues that pull you off the main path. Part of that is down to great writing, and one- or two-liners that hook you. But what goes into creating that on the audio programming side of things?
Colin Walder: We’ve been putting a lot of effort into these “community dialogues” — the things you hear in the world. I was the first audio programmer to join CDPR. Now we have six. We’ve grown the team a lot since I joined.
One of the features in that is a dynamic voice system. So there’s something where we can look at the conversations that happen, look at the potential conversations that we have recorded, and make intelligent choices about, okay, has the player heard this conversation before? Have they not? What will be interesting for the player to hear? And try and make sure we’re not getting repeated dialogues, and we’re always having something interesting.
We’re also not hitting them with too much, having the dialogues too often. This is also going to make them spent. So we put a lot of our effort into creating the systems that will drive this. Both in the exploration and in the combat. You’ll have heard some of the combat lines that were being shouted out in the demo. Depending on how loud the gun was at the time… *laughs*
This adds a lot to the cohesion of the world, and can anchor into reality. You want to feel like these people are kind of real people. I mean we know that they’re not, obviously — we know that not everyone in the world is a main NPC. But we still want the world to feel full, and vibrant, and have this… we want it to feel alive. The whole city is like a living breathing entity. Full of all these people with their own thoughts, ambitions, desires.
So we have the conversations being triggered with the ambient sounds, the reflections off the walls, making sure that we have the crowd sounds that are reactive… so you’re hearing sounds from crowds where there are crowds. We have crowd sounds that can be representative of the characters that are there, and we’re trying to get details into this that often can go unnoticed. They’re not obvious. But when you stack a detail on a detail on a detail, that’s when you get this really rich picture that is bigger than the sum of its parts.
This is both the blessing and the curse of audio. In that, often, people won’t notice it. Or notice it actively. But because of that, it gives you this backdoor into the brain, where you can slip some ideas, you can slip some emotions, you can slip some things that will create this feeling. So people will have a feeling, have an experience. And not perhaps know or recognise what it was that created that feeling for them.
Do you ever use that backdoor to plant subtle, almost subconscious clues for gameplay purposes?
Yeah I’d say attention to detail is a hallmark of CDPR sound. When you think back to The Witcher, it’s a game set in a slavic fantasy. So the birds that you hear in The Witcher are slavic birds that you would find there.
So the attention to detail is something that, again, you won’t recognise, but then maybe you’re going to remove some elements of the sound when there’s danger coming up, or pick the certain elements that are going to help the player feel like a response is going to help them moving forward in the story or help them fighting.
It’s very important with these things that they’re subtle. Like, there’s a time for UI sounds that are really strongly showing you that this thing is happening or that thing is happening. You saw in the game we have alerts for entering a dangerous area. So these things are very prominent markers, but you also have the more subtle reactions of the world.
If we look at the drive from the hotel in the demo, down to the mall, the ambience is actually changing there. So you start to hear that it’s becoming a little less busy, a little less civil. We hear a little more of the gunfire that’s present in Pacifica. When we get in the mall we have these adverts which are distorted and broken, so actually we can hear that this mall has been hacked. It’s been taken over and controlled.
This isn’t something that’s as obvious as a signal, but it shows you that something’s happening there. And afterwards, the sound is completely different, because there’s no longer this place of danger, so all of the intensity has gone out. We do have an advert playing, but it’s a different advert, it’s been treated in a different way, so that it can instil this feeling of peace, and so the player can know now this place is clear. I’ve healed it.
These audio reflections and other tricks you mentioned, are they mostly for atmosphere or can you use any of that to your advantage in gameplay?
Taking the stealthy approach, this becomes very important. Because you need to be able to hear when someone’s going and not get seen by them, and also, they can hear you. So you need to be aware of the sounds that you’re making. Whether you’re going to upgrade your cyberware, so you can have some shock absorbing legs that can dampen some of the sounds.
Can you increase your senses as well as fooling those of NPCs?
Oh yeah, definitely. So in the demo we showcase one of the cybernetics which is very important for the main character, which is the audio/visual enhancing implant. And this allows the player to zoom in and see things much closer up, but also enhances the hearing. So you could be spying on someone from a distance, eavesdrop on their conversation, and maybe learn a little bit of something about their plans or their weak points or some secrets about the environment that you can use to your advantage.
In a small space like the marketplace that we saw in the demo, how many of these audio elements might be layered on top of each other?
It’s a really difficult question to try to put a number on. So we have various small micro scenes, happening with some people playing a game here, we have some people having a conversation there, some gossip… And we have this market music, which is diegetic music, even though there aren’t actually speakers placed there, it’s just being authored in such a way that it has the sound of music that’s inhabiting this market, with some creative use of the reflections going on.
The good thing about sound, one of the more empowering things, is you can have small elements that you don’t see. You can have people talking behind a wall and they don’t actually exist. There’s no one there. But you know that you want to have some atmosphere, so you create some sound. So it’s not just the things that you see, it’s the things that you don’t see, and you can make that choice.
In the absence of a similar source material to The Witcher’s slavic fantasy roots, do you have to create your own imagination of what 2077 would sound like?
There’s certainly like a lot of freedom and area for exploration. So for example we used a tool called an electroschluch, which is like a microphone but for electric fields. We used this with an analog synth and we were coming up with these sounds, that are not ‘real’ sounds, but also they are analog, and do have this gritty, realistic feel.
It allows you to record electric fields, and this gives you very interesting sounds, because some of the things which don’t make actual sound, make very interesting patterns. If you have a screen, for example if you were to record this, you would hear different sounds at different parts of the screen, because of how the electric fields are going. This gives these great textures.
So it’s this combination of recorded sounds and synthesised sounds. Now of course we’re also using the reference of Cyberpunk 2020, so we still all have some sort of understanding of Cyberpunk — which is futuristic, but not science fiction. It’s like gritty, dark, dystopian fantasy. And this has to become the anchor for us to move on as designers.